Act now as the Covid-19 inquiry begins

FROM RECOVERY’S launch in October 2020, we’ve been focused on the need to ensure the right outcome from the Public Inquiry into the Government response to Covid-19. Now it is beginning and we have an imminent deadline as it consults on its draft terms of reference. Responses are due by 7 April – just days away. 

Deciding the terms of reference is crucial because the Inquiry will only consider evidence and draw conclusions in relation to those terms of reference – if key issues aren’t included, they won’t be addressed. 

We’ve long known how important this is: the prospect of this Inquiry has driven decision-making in Whitehall right from the outset of the pandemic. 

In February 2020, before the first lockdown, a senior Government minister told me that Covid would inevitably reach the UK, with a peak expected in April, but that the Government was determined to keep calm, avoid destructive calls for lockdowns, and keep business as usual. 

As we all know, within a month, there was a dramatic change and a calamitous series of lockdowns followed. As a long list of authoritative studies now show, they had little benefit but caused huge collateral damage. They paved for the way for further serious errors, most notably, allowing SAGE and Whitehall to dismiss the need for more focused protection to safeguard those most at risk, such as vulnerable people in care homes.    

That disastrous u-turn was triggered above all by one simple phrase, heard endlessly in Whitehall in Spring 2020,

“What will you tell the Inquiry?”

If someone suggested that the evidence supported arguments that restrictions were too harsh, or might do more harm than good, or ran contrary to fundamental rights, the response was always the same: ‘What will you tell the Inquiry/”

The thinking was that a single Covid-related death which might later be deemed to be preventable would inevitably be laid at the door of the ministers and civil servants who failed to take the proposed action. That one phrase created a ratchet for ever-tougher restrictions and an insurmountable barrier to rational debate, driving the agenda of the lockdown zealots throughout Whitehall.

It assumed, I hope wrongly, that any Inquiry would only consider one aspect of the response to Covid-19 – the number of people who died from the virus. The expectation was that the collateral damage of restrictions would be ignored. Their mental health impact, their effect on treatment of other life-threatening conditions, the colossal hit to the economy, the devastation to small businesses, the impact on education and young people – none of these would matter. 

That’s why the Government never assessed the collateral damage of the restrictions it was introducing – civil servants and ministers assumed they wouldn’t have to answer for it.  

This attitude poisoned policy-making over the pandemic, ensuring that measures which were enormously harmful were passed without their potential damage being properly considered. Only after the first lockdown had ended was a study conducted to assess the collateral damage of the Spring restrictions, following pressure from more sceptical ministers led by Priti Patel at the Home Office. It found that a colossal 200,000 deaths would result from the harm done by the first lockdown – so it was swiftly rubbished by lockdown supporters and buried. The exercise was not repeated until the Covid Recovery Group forced the Government to look at collateral damage – and even then, the quality of the substantiation produced was risible.  

From day one when Recovery first launched in 2020, we have argued consistently for an Inquiry that looks at the wider impact of measures as well as their narrow effect on Covid-19 itself. We wanted decision-makers to understand that all aspects of the possible harms of their actions would be scrutinised, to ensure more rational, balanced policy.  This formed the third of the Five reasonable Demands on which we based our campaign, which called on the Government to:

3          Hold a comprehensive Public Inquiry and a balanced public debate 

We need to examine every aspect of the response to Covid-19. That includes the huge impact on other aspects of health care, such as cancer; the economic impact and consequent mortality; mental health; and the role of Government and media in stoking fear.

Following our launch, we commissioned independent surveys to assess the level of public support for this and our four other demands. We found that 80% of the public backed them, with 50% strongly in support and just 3% opposed (Omnibus polling by Yonder for Recovery, 25-26 November 2020). We will repeat the poll now and we are confident that our demand for a properly balanced Inquiry continues to be shared by the vast majority of the population. 

Now we actually have an Inquiry, it’s vital that it lives up to their expectations and examines all aspects of what has happened over the past two years. 

It’s not enough to focus on whether or not the measures had a beneficial impact on Covid – dubious though that is. It must fully consider whether the wider harms they did were justified. That’s why responses to the draft terms of reference are so important. 

In order to learn the right lessons from our painful experience, the Inquiry must be balanced. Just as importantly, it must set a precedent so that never in future are decision-makers driven by such a one-sided agenda. The refrain ‘What will you tell the Inquiry?’ must not again be the gateway for harmful measures to pass without scrutiny.  

You can see the draft terms of reference for the Inquiry here:

Documents – UK Covid-19 Inquiry (public-inquiry.uk)

Anyone can submit their views and we encourage supporters to do so – the link to the consultation is here:  Terms of Reference consultation

Here are some of the concerns that we will raise in our own submission:

  • While the draft terms of reference do include some areas relating to the collateral damage of restrictions, particularly their impact on the economy and business, it’s immediately apparent that they are skewed towards consideration of the effectiveness of measures in controlling covid rather than their wider impact on our health and welfare. They must be properly balanced and look at the full range of collateral damage. 
  • The Inquiry has a brief to listen to the experiences of those who were bereaved or suffered loss ‘as a result of the pandemic’. We want to clarify that this will include those who were bereaved or suffered loss as a result of restrictions – any bereavement or suffering caused by actions or failings over Covid-19 must be admissible as evidence.  
  • Missing is any consideration of the extraordinary measures taken to restrict key freedoms, particularly freedom of speech. This meant measures were not subject to the normal public debate necessary to drive good policy-making. Legitimate and factual comment was labelled ‘disinformation’ by self-appointed fact checkers who were largely funded by organisations which stood to benefit from lockdowns – should not the Inquiry consider whether Ofcom and the BBC were right to hand them such power? Should we not consider those who lost their careers and livelihood because they spoke out against restrictions? 
  • Missing also is scrutiny of the role of communications and behavioural psychology during the pandemic, which has caused widespread concern. Was it right that experts in what is effectively mind control were given so much scope to influence the thinking and actions of the population – all without their consent or knowledge? Unprecedented amounts were spent on sophisticated advertising and PR campaigns designed to control public behaviour, informed by expert psychologists. 

Please review the terms of reference and make your own points over the consultation: it may help stop similar measures being used again. 

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Jon Dobinson is a co-founder of Recovery and a former Secretary-General of the International Society for Human Rights (UK). Now CEO of Other Creative Ltd, the London-based creative business, his companies have raised millions for charities and causes including Freedom FromTorture, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and 38 Degrees.