The UK's Covid Response Inquiry Has Opened – Here's What To Watch Out For

Experts fear that the government will try to throw scientists under the bus.
Visitors to the National Covid Memorial Wall in London
Visitors to the National Covid Memorial Wall in London
Jonathan Brady - PA Images via Getty Images

The independent public inquiry into the UK’s Covid response and the impact of the pandemic has opened.

While the autumn wave is looming and cases are starting to increase again, the UK is still a long way where it was when the first lockdown started in March 2020.

With a successful vaccine programme and a greater understanding of the virus, society has – for the most part – returned to normal.

But, the UK had one of the highest excess death rates in Europe in 2020 and many people are still struggling to cope with the long-term impacts of the virus – and there’s a lot more to understand about just how the UK handled it.

So, what is the independent public inquiry?

The government’s response to Covid and the long-lasting impact of the pandemic will be examined in the coming weeks, through a schedule outlined by lawyers.

It plans to put those who have suffered from the pandemic at the centre of its inquiry, according to the chair, Baroness Hallett, meaning those who have mourned family and friends, those who still suffer with poor health, and those who have experienced economic or educational hardship.

Hallett, who also oversaw the inquests into the 2005 terror attacks, promised to do “everything in her power” to understand what happened through a ”thorough and fair” inquiry, and understand what lessons need to be learned.

A one-day hearing on its first module, pandemic preparedness, kicked off on Tuesday October 4. This also intends to examine the political decision-making at the start of the pandemic, the health system, test-and-trace and health inequalities.

Both individuals and organisations will be accessing documents and making submissions for examination. The UK Health Security Agency, NHS England, the health secretary, ministers in devolved countries, government departments, and the Covid bereaved will all be involved.

Even those not awarded core participation status will still get to submit evidence, and there will be informal listening events held around the UK which people can attend

It will also look at all the decisions made by the UK up until February 2022.

The bereaved have also been promised by those running the inquiry that it “won’t drag on for decades”.

Will it spell more trouble for the Tories?

It’s no secret that the Conservatives have been struggling in the opinion polls – and some expect it to only get worse as the early days on the pandemic are revisited.

The night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, Sacha Lord, tweeted: “If the government think the last few days have been bad, today, the Covid Inquiry begins.”

Will we see divisions between scientists and the government?

Well, there are fears that the government will point the blame at the scientific community for any errors in the way the pandemic was handled – especially as ministers repeatedly told the public they were “guided by the science”.

Kit Yates, from independent SAGE, and a mathematical biologist from the University of Bath, shared a Twitter thread pointing out all the occasions when the UK government ignored the scientific community,

He said: “It is well documented that the government frequently ignored scientific advice in favour of populist policies, which would eventually and inevitably backfire on them.”

For instance, SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – recommended introducing a circuit breaker lockdown to reduce Covid infections in September 2020. The government did not implement this until November, by which point infection rates had rocketed.

Rishi Sunak, who was the chancellor during the pandemic and one of the final two Tory leadership candidates over the summer, made it clear only in August that he was pulling to throw the science community under the bus.

He said: “We shouldn’t have empowered the scientists in the way we did. And you have to acknowledge trade-offs from the beginning. If we’d done all of that, we could be in a very different place. We’d probably have made different decisions on things like schools.”

Has this inquiry started too late?

Lindsay Jackson, from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, said she was “really pleased” it was starting, but that it took too long.

According to the BBC, she said: “It’s two-and-a-half years since the pandemic started. We lost so many people. If people have done things wrong, they need to be held accountable.

“For me, my family and the others who lost loved ones, it’s important that answers are found to the questions that we have.”

The inquiry had been scheduled to open in September, but was pushed back following the death of the Queen.

And should we talk about the pandemic as ongoing?

Some people think high case numbers means we need to stop talking about Covid in the past tense – it’s still very much present within our society.

The BBC also reported at the end of December that the deputy chief medical officer for England, Dr Thomas Waite, was worried about rising case numbers.

He said that the increase in Covid hospital admissions in England is a “wake-up call”. As the BBC health editor Hugh Pym noted, there was a 47% increase over the week leading up to September 26 compared to the previous week.

Is more transparency necessary?

Clinical epidemiologist, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, tweeted that she was already concerned about the inquiry after the first day. She claimed there was a “lack of transparency, openness & exclusion or marginalisation of voices of relevant groups”.

She also pointed out that to ensure the inquiry has the public’s trust, the bereaved need to be more involved and that all the evidence is disclosed, so there is a “consistent and clear approach” to coming to conclusions.

Have there been other inquiries?

Yes – a report from MPs found in October 2021, that the UK’s failure to do more to stop the spread of Covid was one of the country’s worst public health failures.

The report, from MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, alleged that the government’s decision to back herd immunity by infection delayed the first lockdown and cost thousands of lives.

It also criticised “group-think” among scientists and ministers, as it supposedly meant the UK was not as open to different approaches to tackling the virus as it should have been.

However, the inquiry also pointed out the success of the vaccine rollout and the way hospital intensive care capacity was increased.

National Audit Office also found in late 2021 that ministers had not been properly preparing for Covid pandemic having dropped plans for shielding, job-support schemes and school disruption.


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