Covid inquiry: can it bring about meaningful change?

Bereaved families demand answers as public hearings examining almost every aspect of the British state get underway

Covid memorial wall opposite the Houses of Parliament
The Covid memorial wall in London opposite the Houses of Parliament
(Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The first public hearings in the long-awaited Covid inquiry finally began this morning with a film featuring testimonies from bereaved families followed by opening statements.

This first stage of the inquiry, which officially opened last year under retired judge Baroness Hallett, examines the UK’s resilience and preparedness before the pandemic. In all the inquiry, which will cost more than £100 million, will be split into six modules, according to the Evening Standard, “with public hearings scheduled to conclude by summer 2026, and interim reports published before then”.

“Whereas most inquiries deal with a single incident or organisation,” said The Economist, “this one will anatomise almost the entire British state, from the prime minister’s office downwards.”

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“In complexity, political sensitivity and the number of British victims, only the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war comes close,” added the newspaper.

What do the papers say?

The Daily Mirror’s front page went in hard on the current psychodrama gripping the Tory party. “As our PM and ex-PM bicker like toddlers, the grieving families of 227,000 decent ordinary Brits wait to finally learn the truth about No10’s handling of the pandemic,” it said.

But with the government continuing to play hardball over the release of private messages between ministers during the pandemic, some question whether the full truth will ever come to light.

The first module, on the “resilience and preparedness” of the UK, is “arguably the most important of all the many different topics the Inquiry will cover, as it will hopefully allow us to better prepare for the next one,” said The Telegraph. This incudes whether the risk of a coronavirus pandemic was properly identified and planned for and if the lessons from earlier cases at home and abroad were properly considered and acted on.

Among the other key questions people want answered, said the BBC’s health correspondent Nick Triggle, are: how can we better protect people when there is another pandemic; how did the UK get to have such complex and confusing rules; how can we support children to recover and avoid such harm in future pandemics; how do we avoid lockdowns in future pandemics; and how should the system be changed to work out the trade-offs of the decisions we make?

“Inquiries seek to do three things,” said The Economist: “establish the facts; bring a sense of resolution to victims; and help to prevent a repeat. With covid, all these look extraordinarily hard.”

“The problem of judging the judges is hard,” agreed The Times, referencing the fact that many of the usual scientific experts expected to be called to assess the government’s response were themselves employed as government advisers or in Covid modelling groups. “The problem of judging the evidence is harder still. It is nothing compared to the problem of collecting it – of collating a national experience,” concluded the paper.

What next?

Evidence this week will focus on how prepared the UK was for Covid-19 but tensions are already running high between the inquiry and those whose loved ones died in the pandemic. None of the 20 potential witnesses put forward by campaign group Covid Bereaved Families for Justice has been called to give evidence, with lawyers representing them set to speak in their stead.

Next week former PM David Cameron, ex-chancellor George Osborne and former health secretary now chancellor Jeremy Hunt are expected to be called, “effectively putting the Tory policy of austerity on trial”, said the i news site.

In assessing the impact of the coalition government’s spending squeeze on areas such as the NHS and social care, “the Conservative party’s economic policies since 2010 will be placed in the dock as much as its health policies”, argued the paper’s chief political commentator Paul Waugh.

Yet attention is already turning to the module 2 hearings scheduled for the autumn on “Core UK decision-making and political governance”. This will focus on the decisions of the prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson, and his inner circle, including the current PM Rishi Sunak, between January 2020 when Covid first emerged and March 2020 when the first lockdown was imposed.

Requests for evidence have been sent to 450 politicians, officials and scientists. This highlights “the scope and width” of the inquiry compared to commissions in other countries that have already finished their reports, Hugo Keith KC, the chief counsel to the inquiry described by The Guardian as its “chief inquisitor”, said.

“That much is true,” said The Economist. “It will be the inquiry’s great virtue. And its great weakness.”

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