The Scottish government has announced a public inquiry into their handling of the Covid pandemic, to take place at the end of this year.
Scotland has raced to be the first constituent nation to hold an inquiry; the UK-wide inquiry is expected to go ahead next Spring. While this may be seen as yet another example of Nicola Sturgeon attempting to outmanoeuvre Boris Johnson for her own political gain, public inquiries do play a vital role in our democracy and ought to be welcomed, albeit cautiously.
My colleague, IEA Editorial and Research Fellow Professor Len Shackleton wrote on this topic in The Telegraph in March 2021. He noted that there are six main functions of an inquiry, as identified by the late Geoffrey Howe: establishing facts, learning from events, catharsis, reassurance, accountability and, finally, simply to demonstrate that ‘something is being done’.
Public Inquiries serve a useful purpose to allow us to learn from past events, but also play a pivotal role in holding decision makers to account. At a time when Parliamentary scrutiny was relegated in the face of an imminent crisis, with the Prime Minister acting as a president in all but name, a retrospective accountability exercise is understandably welcome. We seem to forget that ministers were given emergency powers under the Coronavirus Act to limit public gatherings and the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Steps) (England) Regulations 2021, a statutory instrument made under the Public Health Act 1984, which was the basis for the lockdown rules in March last year, were rushed through without a vote in Parliament. These acts and statutory instruments are yet to expire or be repealed, and many of the decisions in the last year were made under their provisions.
Decisions on PPE contracts, ‘Eat out to Help out’ and care home deaths received plenty of media attention at the time, but no policy actor was truly held accountable, for there was no real way for Parliament to pass judgement on their actions.
In this case, digging-up the past would go some way to redressing this grievance, holding those responsible for certain decisions to account. However, there is a concern that the public inquiry would largely be a waste of time and money; while reviving past controversies would do nothing for the catharsis of bereaved families. There is evidence to support this.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance has estimated that over £300 million has been spent on public inquiries in the last five years, with investigations lasting several years and producing mixed results. Currently, there are eight ongoing public inquiries, three of which have overrun by five years. It’s hard to imagine that the Covid inquiry, the granddaddy of all inquiries, would be delivered any sooner. The Iraq War or ‘Chilcot’ inquiry took seven years, and Grenfell is still ongoing from 2017.
Besides cost and time, many will fear for the independence of the inquiry, believing the process is tainted by vested interests.
Those in Scotland will remember the controversial Hamilton inquiry, which saw Nicola Sturgeon cleared of breaching ministerial code despite the Parliamentary Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints concluding that Sturgeon had indeed misled them. Though this was not a public inquiry and there were multiple follow-up Parliamentary inquiries, the saga has cast doubt on whether the process of trial by inquiries is satisfactory. But is there an alternative?
The only other option left on the table to investigate the government’s Covid response retrospectively is a public inquest.
An inquest is an independent investigation carried out by a coroner to establish how, where, and why a person or people died. They are held in public and culminate in the coroner recording a conclusion about the cause of death, such as unlawful killing or accident. They are not about apportioning blame only establishing what happened. Who should be held responsible remains a matter for the courts. The scope of most inquests is limited, but they can have a wider frame of reference if Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights is invoked. Article 2 inquests are held when public bodies have “failed to protect the deceased against a human threat or other risk”. Overall, inquests are quicker and cheaper and could be the compromise for those disillusioned with public inquiries.
However, no matter how tempting this option sounds, an inquest is the wrong tool for the job. Any investigation on Covid must be wide in scope, level blame and bring a plethora of actors to account. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005 concluded that, where public concern extends significantly beyond a death itself to wider related issues, an inquiry may be preferable to an inquest.
A Covid inquiry was always inevitable, and it is a useful process which ensures past decisions cannot be left to conveniently dwindle from memory or the facts remain hidden – politicians must always answer for their actions. Although the criticisms levelled at public inquiries are compelling, for any government to kick the can on this issue would be an admission of guilt and people would rightly ask ‘what are they hiding?’. Expensive and time consuming, yes – but it should be welcomed with cautious optimism.