The Government continues to give assurances that there will be an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 response but uncertainty remains about the timing of that with the Government only committing to it taking place "at the appropriate time"
The Government has published a response to recommendations made by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (the Committee) concerning the establishment of a public inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic response (the Inquiry).
The Government confirmed, again, that an independent inquiry will take place but rejected the Committee's recommendations that it be announced immediately. The Government has insisted that the Inquiry must take place "at the appropriate time" and that at present the Government's entire focus is on the pandemic response and saving lives. As well as the continuing uncertainty about the anticipated timing and scope of the Inquiry, the impact of this approach is that it limits the potential opportunity for lessons to be learnt from the Inquiry to assist in improving the response to the current pandemic.
Summary of key engagement about the Inquiry
- 15 May 2020 - The Committee began its own inquiry called Responding to COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Act 2020.
- 15 July 2020 - The Prime Minister committed in the House of Commons to establishing an independent inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK Government's response.
- 10 September 2020 - The Committee published, as part of its inquiry, a report called A public Inquiry into the Government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic (the Report), providing recommendations for how an independent inquiry should proceed.
- 19 November 2020 - The Government published its response to the recommendations contained in the Committee's Report.
- In the Report, the Committee made 15 recommendations on how the Inquiry should be set up and run, including recommendations for:
- a non-judicial appointment as chair to ensure that the Inquiry remains forward-looking and policy focused;
- a greater than usual degree of transparency in selection and appointment of the chair;
- all in-house assessments of the pandemic response conducted by Government departments to be made public; and
- the Government to set out its plans for dealing with any issues not covered by the Inquiry.
In recommending the appointment of a non-judicial chair, the Committee made clear that the Inquiry should be focused upon learning lessons from the pandemic response and improving policy for the future, rather than an adversarial exercise in apportioning blame:
"The coronavirus pandemic did not arise because of human error or systemic failures of policy […] the primary purpose of any look backwards should not be to apportion blame but to understand how to ensure that the country is better prepared for any future pandemic."
The fifth recommendation of the Report suggested that the Government should announce the Inquiry immediately (as at the date of publication in September) to allow for the administrative set up of the Inquiry to begin as soon as possible.
The Report suggests that if the Inquiry were announced soon enough following publication then evidence might be heard by the inquiry early in 2021. The Report further warned that, "[d]elaying the set-up will inevitably delay the inquiry’s ability to start work in earnest."
The Government's Response
In its response, published on 19 November 2020, the Government noted the recommendations made in the Report; expressly agreed with some comments made but made little commitment to what can be expected to happen and when.
In relation to the request that Government departments make public their in-house assessments of the pandemic response, the Government committed itself only to sharing information "when it is possible and appropriate to do so."
Furthermore, in relation to the recommendation that the Inquiry be announced immediately, the Government warned that, "a premature inquiry risks drawing key people away from their work on the pandemic itself: impeding our response; slowing-down Government action; and potentially risking lives. And it is not yet possible to predict when conditions will be right for the inquiry to start. Clearly we all want to beat this virus as soon as possible—that is why the pandemic response needs to be our full focus."
In reply to the Government's comments, the Committee Chair, the Conservative Party MP William Wragg, said, "it is disappointing that they have not seen the value in laying some of groundwork now […] If we are to ensure that an inquiry is to provide more than simply lessons learned then timing is critical. Setting up key functions now will do much to enable this to happen."
To ensure public confidence in the Inquiry and to enable the Inquiry to positively impact the current pandemic as well as future pandemics, work will be needed to commence an inquiry sooner rather than later.
The Government's response can be found here.
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