OPINION: The UK needs a public inquiry into its handling of the Coronavirus crisis, and it needs it now. Whilst the Government has agreed there will need to be an inquiry, its consistent line thus far has been that now is not the time. But this is wrong.
The UK has thus far been one of the countries to suffer most from the pandemic. Over 100,000 deaths have been attributed to Covid, which is significantly more than lost their lives on these Isles during the World Wars. The economic damage has been severe and ongoing too.
The roll-out of vaccines offers us hope, and within a few weeks we will see data which we hope will show that the vaccines significantly reduce the likelihood of hospitalisation and death from the disease. We hope the vaccines will reduce the transmissibility of the virus too.
But right now, we don’t know, and that’s why we need a public inquiry now.
Public inquiries usually seek to answer three main questions:
- What happened?
- Why did it happen and who is to blame?
- What can be done to prevent this happening again?
We already know the answer to question one, and to some extent question two. Assigning blame may not be helpful at this stage. But the question of what can be done to prevent this happening again is pertinent.
We many not live through a pandemic again, but this particular virus will not go away, and we need to have a better plan in place for next winter in case vaccines are not as effective as we hope. Thus we need an inquiry to begin its work in the next few weeks, and to provide its findings by June of this year. That’s an aggressive timescale, but as we have seen with the vaccine development programme, when there is a compelling deadline, we can work to different timescales.
Doubtless there will be debate as to who should lead the inquiry. This must not be an overtly political appointment. It needs to be someone experienced in handling public investigations, and who has public credibility. Clearly the members of the inquiry team will be drawn from many areas of public life, including, but not restricted to:
- The NHS
- Social Care
- Mental Health
- Young people under age of 25
We know this pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people. Their voices need to be heard. We know too that it has had a disproportionate impact on citizens from black and minority ethnic communities. Their voices need to be heard.
Mistakes will have been made in response to this pandemic by governments the world over. That’s not surprising. Indeed whilst our outcomes thus far in the UK have been poor, they have not been much worse than those of our nearest neighbours in Western Europe. But around the world, we see better outcomes. We see something akin to normal life in New Zealand and Australia. We see very low levels of Covid related death in more densely populated countries such as Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.
In short, we could have done better, and we must do better. We need a public inquiry now, and the Labour Party, as our leading party of Opposition, should be demanding one.
This opinion piece was contributed by David Josephs, chair of the Hitchin and Harpenden Labour Party