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The pandemic inquiry should listen to workers

Althorne recreation park, Essex: no dogs ­– and no children either. Children and young people had their social lives devastated by a disease that posed only a tiny direct threat to them. The inquiry will look into this and other health inequalities. Photo Robbie M/shutterstock.com.

There is much to learn from the Covid-19 pandemic, but we should not look to the Hallett inquiry for the lessons. Official inquiries take ages, cost millions, and rarely come up with the goods…

At least 200,000 people have died in Britain of Covid-19. Calls for an inquiry into the pandemic began during the pandemic itself, supported by opposition politicians, some trade unions and some of the great and good of the medical establishment.

There was no single purpose behind these calls. Some people wanted to apportion blame for failures or believed from experience that the response could have been far better. Others, more cynically, saw it merely as a way of further embarrassing the government.

An inquiry chair was appointed late in 2021, terms of reference finalised by June 2022, and the Inquiry began hearing evidence in June 2023. Notably absent in the proceedings so far is the voice of those workers who found ways to deal with the impact – in health and beyond.

Official inquiries are a poor tool for finding out truth, or learning lessons, in a timely manner. The Grenfell fire inquiry started in 2017; it has yet to report. The Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq published its report 13 years after the event. And the Bloody Sunday inquiry finally reported 38 years after the 1972 massacre in Derry. Many potential witnesses were by then dead, others no longer fit to recall events and give evidence.

Years and years

The UK Covid-19 Inquiry, known as the Hallett inquiry after its chair, the former appeal judge Heather Hallett, is not expected to give its first report until the summer of 2024 at the earliest. The inquiry will sit until at least 2026, and has divided its work into six modules, with more to be announced. The hearings so far form part of the first module, on Resilience and Preparedness.

The modules to follow are on: core UK decision-making and political governance (divided into four, the UK as a whole, with Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland each to be considered separately); the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare systems; vaccines and therapeutics; government procurement; and last of all the care sector.

The inquiry will consider further issues including testing and tracing and the government’s business and financial responses. It will also look at health inequalities; education, children and young persons, and other public services, including frontline delivery by key workers.

Scotland is included in the inquiry, with dedicated hearings for Scottish issues. Typically the SNP has decided to set up a rival version, the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry. Set up in 2021, it has yet to hold any public hearings apart from a briefing on epidemiology.

Already the UK Inquiry website hosts 627 documents. The costs of the inquiry are spiralling, not least because of the large numbers of lawyers employed by the government and other “core participants”. Every government department involved has its own lawyers. And the inquiry itself has 62 barristers including 12 King’s Counsel.

Soaring costs

The Times reported in June that the Inquiry had already cost £100 million and is predicted to cost more than double that by the time it has concluded.

Yet thanks to parliamentary privilege some relevant material, for example a National Audit Office report, cannot even be discussed. The counsel to the inquiry states that it is not permissible to use parliamentary material as evidence for or against disputed factual matters, or even to challenge it.

What have we learnt from the hearings so far? That government plans for a pandemic were extraordinarily complicated. The hearing was shown an organogram for pandemic preparedness and response structures in the UK and England, described as a “bowl of spaghetti” by one witness.

As hearings proceeded, there was a distinct contrast between evidence given by scientists and clinicians and those of politician witnesses. Media attention predictably centred on the politicians, who were inevitably keen to shift blame away from themselves.

‘Separatist politicians were as ill-prepared as England and the UK central government…’

Separatist politicians in Scotland and Wales spent the pandemic jockeying for position and trying to present themselves as better than the UK government. But it has become clear they were as ill-prepared as England and the UK central government. Scotland went unrepresented at the UK-wide Resilience Forum meetings.

The lessons of recent pandemic threats had not been absorbed, in particular from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2004 or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 – both caused by a species of coronavirus.

Public health and infectious disease specialists noted the run-down of the public health service. The Health and Social Care Act of 2012 had set up Public Health England, and transferred many public health responsibilities out of the NHS to local government, which was struggling to even fulfil existing responsibilities.

Budget cuts

The budget for Public Health England was cut by 40 per cent in real terms between 2013 and 2021, when it was disbanded and replaced with the UK Health Security Agency.

Pathogens which cause serious epidemic and pandemic diseases change over time. What kind of preparedness is relevant to best cope?

Most important is that the workers, the real experts in those areas, ensure that Britain’s scientific and pharmaceutical industries are in a fit state to respond quickly as new threats emerge.

Those of us who work in the NHS are central, but the inquiry is unlikely to say anything meaningful about improving NHS pay and staffing levels, nor should we expect it to. Those questions will be resolved in struggle.

The pandemic was tamed by the expertise of British workers: in vaccine development; in caring for the sick; in keeping the country fed; and in getting workers to work.

By contrast, those calling for perpetual lockdown, and certain trade unionists keen to keep their members away from work, serve no one. We are still living with the long term consequences of the pandemic, in education as much as health. Workers will have to deal with that too in time.