BARONESS HALLETT opened the official Covid Inquiry this week as its Chair amidst criticism from all those who had hoped for a rigorous early investigation into the damage done by restrictions to our economy and society. She has chosen to structure the Inquiry as a series of modules and shockingly, the first three that she has set out, representing its sole focus for 2022-2023, ignore the damage done by lockdowns completely.
The first module will look at pandemic preparedness: the discussion here will inevitably be upon whether sufficient measures were in place and whether more needed to be done (a question odds-on to answer ‘yes’ at any Inquiry).
The second looks at political and administrative governance and decision-making. While there is the possibility to explore whether the decision-making should have considered collateral damage here, the focus appears rather to be on the relationships and collaboration between different arms of government.
The third module looks exclusively at the impact on the healthcare sector and its workers – in other words, it looks at the extent of the pressure on the NHS. This implies a one-sided focus on whether the restrictions introduced were sufficient to ‘protect the NHS’ without considering the damage done by them on wider society and the UK economy.
Perversely, the focus appears entirely at odds with the priorities that Baroness Hallett herself sets out in her opening statement. Its second paragraph explains,
“People lost loved ones and could not mourn properly. Children and young people lost educational opportunities. Businesses failed. Physical and mental health suffered. People felt isolated. Although life is beginning at last to return to normal, the pandemic is still with us and there are many who are still suffering. Those who have suffered the most want to know if anything could have been done to prevent or reduce their suffering and that is why this Inquiry has been established.”
How extraordinary then that programme of the work she proceeds to set out – from which she will provide interim advice to Government in what she says is a live and ongoing situation – ignores the very impacts she points to completely!
There are worrying signs that the Inquiry will be anything but the ‘rigorous and fair’ process promised by its Chair in her Inquiry Opening Statement. Inbuilt bias and glaring omissions are already apparent.
The Inquiry’s original terms of reference omitted any mention of the hugely damaging impact of restrictions on children and young people, the extent of which is becoming ever more concerning. A growing body of authoritative research reveals serious, widespread damage to child development, education and medical health across all age groups. Following a public outcry, the Inquiry chair was prevailed upon to include a specific reference to children and young people in its terms of reference, but once again, the ordering of the first three modules sees their interests sidelined and ignored.
While there is a suggestion that these issues will be the subject of a later module, the importance of their ordering cannot be overstated. The accompanying press release on the Covid Inquiry website says,
“The Chair has pledged to deliver reports with analysis, findings and recommendations whilst the Inquiry’s investigations are ongoing, so that key lessons from the pandemic are learned quickly.”
This means the Inquiry will be making interim recommendations based on a one-sided and incomplete picture. As each module reports, it will shape policy and have a huge impact on the public debate around new restrictions, with its conclusions certain to hit the headlines. Undoubtedly, the interim conclusions from each module will be highly influential. This can only encourage further restrictions since the first three will consider the areas in which they are most likely to be assessed as having a beneficial impact (though we would contest this) without reference to the widespread damage they caused.
We all know that the NHS will come under renewed pressure this autumn, as the usual seasonal increase in colds, flu and now, of course, covid itself will take place at a time of record backlogs and organisational crisis. Along with leading health experts such as Professor Karol Sikora, Recovery has long warned of the impending health crisis triggered by the combination of changes to health provision (such as shutting GPs’ surgeries), fear, which made many afraid to seek timely health interventions, and counterproductive restrictions.
However, the early modules are so framed as to increase massively the likelihood that the interim advice will favour more and earlier restrictions. Given that there will be calls for a new round of restrictions in response to pressure on the NHS, this is deeply worrying. We can now expect a double whammy over the next two years as unbalanced interim reports from the Inquiry compound NHS failings to place huge pressure on parliamentarians to take action.
Whether by accident or design, the Inquiry has been structured in the way most likely to ensure a repeat of the disastrous mistakes which have caused so many of today’s problems, from the cost-of-living crisis to the explosion in mental health issues amongst young people.
Indeed, the structure repeats and entrenches one of the most significant mistakes made by the Government in 2020-21: it promises to advise on restrictions without making any assessment of the damage they may do.
How can an Inquiry which is structured from the outset in a way that repeats one of the most widely recognised and egregious errors of the pandemic possibly be considered as ‘fair’ ‘rigorous’ or in any way beneficial?
There is a further worrying indication of inbuilt bias. All attempts to contribute or participate in the Inquiry by organisations such as Recovery which questioned restrictions have so far been ignored or rebuffed. Recovery has tens of thousands of supporters from all corners of society, a record of sustained campaigning, and active support extending across many of the key sectors affected by the restrictions, including healthcare, education, leisure, hospitality, entertainment, business, travel, sport and more. We have a strong claim for our views to be considered. Yet despite repeated attempts to engage constructively with the official Inquiry, which says it is eager to hear contributions from all sides, we have yet to receive a single response or indeed, hear one word from it.
We’re by no means the only voice on this side of the debate and we would be happy to know that the Inquiry is instead listening to others who have a record of scepticism. However, we’re not aware of any conversation whatsoever by the Inquiry team with anyone from any of the bodies and campaigns which were critical of restrictions. While we are still at an early stage and it’s possible that we simply can’t see the full picture yet, it’s another big question-mark over the pledge to hold a ‘fair’ Inquiry.
Either way, the chosen approach means that the threat of renewed restrictions is growing, with every indication that the Inquiry which should protect us from further damage is in fact likely to compound it.
Against this backdrop, it is important to do everything we can to put its deliberations back on course. The plan for the Inquiry set out by Baroness Hallett highlights two opportunities to do so. First, organisations may apply to be ‘core participants’ in each module, with legal representation, and the right to contribute statements during Inquiry hearings. Such participation will stretch the resources of a volunteer organisation such as Recovery, but it’s essential to make the attempt. So we will.
Second, Baroness Hallett promises that a listening exercise will take place for each module, with an invitation for all to contribute. The first, for module one, will launch in the Autumn. We urge anyone with an insight to add to take part in these: the voices of those who suffered must be heard.
Will it make a difference, given the evidence suggesting that the Inquiry team leans in favour of further restrictions? We have to hope it will.
When Recovery called for a comprehensive and balanced Inquiry in its Five Reasonable Demands for Good Government During Covid-19, we did so in the belief that a properly constituted and impartial Inquiry would do much to prevent further harm. A partial Inquiry that compounds it must be resisted at all costs.
The UK cannot afford further catastrophic misjudgements over Covid; its young people must not be made to suffer further. As I write, it seems likely that many vulnerable people will die this Winter because they cannot afford to pay for fuel or food. The fall-out from Covid restrictions is largely responsible for the life-threatening problems they now face, from the inflation that squeezes their incomes to the gaping holes punched in their local health care provision – and it will limit our ability to fix these problems for years ahead.
We now face the prospect of a one-sided Inquiry handing down interim reports which could see these same people shut up in isolation and fear this winter by restrictions that can only impoverish them further. The Inquiry is structured to ensure that their pain must be ignored just at the time when it is most acute. If the suffering of such people is to be side-lined, it is hard not to wonder – whom in reality is the Inquiry designed to protect? Sadly the Covid Inquiry already looks loaded towards favouring our failed lockdowns and restrictions.
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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.