LLast week, the public accounts committee reported that the government had committed £ 37bn to testing and tracking, despite “no clear evidence” that the program was effective. Sir Nicholas Macpherson, Former Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, tweeted: more wasteful and inept public spending program of all time ”.
More importantly, Public Health England reported that there had been more than 100,000 excess deaths in England and Wales during the pandemic, a higher civilian death toll than Britain suffered during World War II. However, the government is still putting off the possibility of establishing a public inquiry.
Eight months have passed since the Prime Minister promised the House of Commons that there would be an “independent” investigation. In July, he said it was “not the right time to devote a great deal of official time to an investigation.” This week Commerce Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it would be “premature” to launch an investigation and that reopening the economy was the government’s top priority.
Ministers do not seem to recognize the notion that a democratic government should be open to continuous scrutiny, or that accountability offers the opportunity for improvement. It is as if the role of research is to write history rather than contribute to good governance.
This attitude of defensive introspection has been at the center of political failures throughout the pandemic. Despite the initial rhetoric about “trusting the science,” the government has in fact trusted no one and preferred to trust its own highly politicized judgments made in the closed culture of Westminster.
It is this closed culture that allowed the government to avoid publishing the Operation Cygnus report in 2016, which demonstrated the risks to social care that would arise when hospitals responded to a pandemic by discharging patients from nursing homes, as well as identifying the vulnerability of the UK PPE supply chain. This same culture is why the government initially refused to identify its Sage committee members, and why Sage evidence and documents are only released once they are no longer under live consideration.
This topic is not only of interest to historians. It affects the way the government makes decisions today. Westminster’s closed culture may resist public inquiry, but it is this very culture that is the main argument for one.
No one would claim that the pandemic was easy to manage. There was no precedent for this crisis and the evidence and the science were changing rapidly. But those circumstances should have made several things clear.
First, it was important that the advice that went to ministers reflected the changing science. It was profoundly unlikely that a single group of people could speak with authority about all possible developments. This reality should have led to a conscious effort to ensure that the process of providing advice was open and that all qualified opinions were welcome.
Second, the government needed to involve the public in understanding evolving science. That wouldn’t have required turning every citizen into a qualified virologist, but it would have involved honest public discussion about the uncertainties inherent in science. Political slogans and scientific uncertainty are uncomfortable bedfellows.
Third, ministers had to demonstrate that their own decision-making responded quickly and accurately to evolving science. If citizens are expected to trust science and modify their behaviors accordingly, they have a right to expect their government to do the same.
Neither of these propositions is inherently political. There is no Labor view of virology, nor is there a conservative view of competition. Only in the institutionally polarized world of Westminster do these basic principles become matters of party politics.
But the result of this closed political culture is that bad practices have translated into bad policies, with profound human and social consequences that go far beyond the direct health impacts of Covid. The pandemic has exacerbated social inequalities that have accumulated for a generation. As a result of the combined effects of Brexit and Covid-19, many of the communities that already felt abandoned will have more reason to doubt that our society works for them.
And while the UK has seen a welcome decline in infection rates, we must not assume that the problem has been solved and that the vaccine has done its job. The virus continues to mutate and it is likely that we will see other pandemics in the future that have different causes. How can we ensure that, when we face the next pandemic, we are better prepared and in a better position to match our performance against countries like Japan, which has recorded 8,600 deaths from Covid-19, or Taiwan, which had a rate of total mortality of 10? ?
So the case for a public inquiry into the pandemic is not simply a desire to find out who knew what and when, but to address fundamental questions about the way Britain is governed.
Does our respect for our long parliamentary tradition undermine good governance in the modern world? Does our polarized political system create the appearance of responsibility without substance?
Many people have suggested that Covid could be the catalyst for a “1945 moment.” We need a public inquiry because the track record of our institutions raises serious doubts as to whether they are capable of doing so.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism