The inquiry will last longer than the pandemic

By Scott Harker

With case numbers and deaths at their lowest since July last year, COVID-19 appears to be in retreat across the UK. However, with the Prime Minister setting out plans for an inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic today, it’s clear that the political battle over the legacy of the pandemic is only just beginning.

Contrary to media speculation, the inquiry will not lack teeth. It will be a full, independent, public inquiry with the power to compel the release of relevant information and to obtain evidence from the public under oath. An aspect of the inquiry that is attracting plenty of comment is when it will start: Spring 2022.

The Prime Minister justified this by noting the likelihood of a further surge in COVID-19 infections over the coming winter and the ensuing pressure that this would place on the NHS. The inquiry itself is likely to take at least two years to complete. This would place the date of publication for its final report close to the scheduled end of the current Parliamentary term (December 2024). This means that it is very unlikely to publish recommendations prior to the next General Election.

Money in the bank

Further to this, yesterday’s Queen’s Speech confirmed the Government’s plans to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a move that would restore the power of a Prime Minister to call a general election at a time of their choosing.

It doesn’t take too much to join the dots here. The Prime Minister knows there is a risk that the inquiry would criticise the Government at a point during the next Parliament. At this point, the Government would have both time and ‘money in the bank’ with a public who will have experienced the benefits of a completed vaccination programme and post-pandemic economic recovery.

The timing of this inquiry is, therefore, highly political. Opponents of the Prime Minister have already called for an inquiry to begin immediately, or for a form of inquiry with a quicker turnaround time, that will allow for the public to hear its recommendations and evaluation of the Government’s response prior to the next general election.

Global response

While UK politicians engage in political football over our national assessment of the pandemic, a World Health Organisation (WHO)-backed independent panel has released its early recommendations on the global response to the pandemic.

Chaired by the former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, the panel has deemed the pandemic ‘preventable’ and blamed a number of missed opportunities to halt the spread of the virus. This can be attributed to a lack of global political leadership and a failure to learn the lessons of the past, their report concluded.

The findings and tone of the report give an early insight into the likely post-pandemic reviews and debates in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. In many cases, governments will be criticised for failing to respond quickly enough – but what actually will we learn from our response to the pandemic?

Lessons

The WHO’s independent panel has recommended that world leaders coordinate planning and funding for future pandemics, that the WHO is strengthened, and that global vaccine distribution is more equitable and funded by countries that can afford to pay.

It would take an ardent optimist to believe that all of its recommendations will be carried forward. Although a strong economic rebound from the pandemic is to be expected, the legacy of high debt will eat into future the budgets. Preparations for future pandemics are unlikely to receive all of the funding that they need, particularly at a global level.

The Prime Minister appears to have delegated the responsibility for dealing with lessons of the pandemic to the next Government, one that he could very well lead. This is not however an approach without risk. Early during the pandemic, it was striking how the governments of countries afflicted by the last significant SARS outbreak in the early 2000s responded with greater speed and severity than European countries. This was matched by much greater public action and awareness.

It will be hard for many of us to forget the last 15 months – and public opinion is unlikely to be kind to a Government seen to be hiding from the mistakes of the past.