In May 2021, the Prime Minister committed to a public inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic, starting “in the spring of next year”. This has prompted a number of people and interest groups to clamour for an earlier start.
In setting up the inquiry, the PM will have to make some early decisions on what will be investigated, who will conduct the inquiry, how long it might take, and what its objectives will be. So far, this is the normal process for any investigation.
However, scaling all these steps up for a national public inquiry adds significant complexity to the investigation. Starting with the terms of reference, the challenge will be to ensure that the scope is wide enough to capture all the key issues. But care needs to be taken not to over-stretch the scope so as to add unnecessary costs and delays. There is already some cynicism that the inquiry will not report before the next General Election and there will be significant pressure on the timescales for delivering the inquiry.
Another key task will be to decide who is involved in agreeing the terms of reference. There will be many individuals, public bodies, interest groups and political parties who will expect to be consulted, not to mention those families who suffered losses who will, legitimately, expect a say in what is investigated.
Appointing the right person to chair and lead the inquiry will be no easy task either. The signs suggest that this will be a statutory, judge-led inquiry and deciding who this will be is an important step to bolstering public confidence in the process.
Decisions will need to be made about the chair’s legal and secretariat support; whether they will be assisted by a lay, or expert panel, how they will gather the evidence and where they will be located. A public inquiry needs a significant infrastructure, and crucial decisions will be required about how to resource this.
A mountain of documentary and testimonial evidence will be amassed. It will be essential to implement a robust and reliable digital management system to enable this evidence to be captured, catalogued and retrieved when necessary.
The Prime Minister has promised that the inquiry will be “free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players and analyse and learn from the breadth of our response”. No-one should underestimate the size of this challenge.
It will also be important to consider who the inquiry is for.
Is it for the UK government, to help it learn from how well or how badly it performed in managing the pandemic? Is it for the NHS, and for the independent sector providers, so that they can find better ways to work together should a fresh crisis hit? Is it for central government policy makers and the devolved administrations and parliaments to assess how well they cooperated across national borders? Is it for those families who have lost loved ones to Covid-19? Will the inquiry bring them comfort, closure or compensation?
And, overall, will the inquiry bring us all confidence that we can do better next time?
So, there’s a lot to be done between now and the Spring of 2022 if the inquiry is to hit the ground running. Having been involved in the setting up of lots of investigations with the Verita team I know that getting the first steps right will be key so that, whatever the inquiry investigates, it sets out with a clear vision of what it will deliver for everyone involved.