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The Covid inquiry’s ‘listening’ exercise is biased

Halllet's collective exercise in public grief will entrench the inquiry’s mainstream pro-lockdown narrative

August 4, 2023 - 7:00am

The UK Covid inquiry has now begun its nationwide “listening” exercise, which will run alongside the formal hearings and expert testimonies over the next three years.

Every Story Matters aims to collect tens of thousands of personal stories from across the country “adding insight about the human impact of the pandemic on the UK population”. This is “integral to the inquiry and ensures that it is informed by people’s experiences”.

The listening project aims to fulfil chair Baroness Hallett’s promise that “those who have suffered will be at the heart of the inquiry.” But this collective exercise in public grief is likely to further entrench the inquiry’s mainstream pro-lockdown narrative by making some stories more equal than others.

The first problem is sample bias. Bereaved families are already overrepresented in the inquiry and it is highly likely that such individuals will be more incentivised to submit their stories, due to the nature of grief and the numerous organisations representing them.

In addition, social scientists have long highlighted the problems with online data collection that proliferated during the pandemic. Others have also shown how easy it is to generate skewed findings from biased samples, whether in vaccine uptake or lockdown opinion polls. 

A second problem is that, by definition, a biased sample will generate a biased set of findings. The inquiry claims that it will use these stories to create themed reports that will “be submitted to each relevant investigation as evidence to identify trends and themes…which may illustrate systemic failures.” Personal stories certainly have something to add to the inquiry, but using them to directly shape public investigations, based on what is likely to be a highly biased sample, is deeply problematic. 

The inquiry would be better off first diving into the existing academic literature. There was a torrent of Covid academic papers — over 100,000 published in 2020 alone, and nearly 10,000 in the social sciences — at least 2,000 of which were empirical studies. In 2021, the British Academy synthesised social research evidence generated in the UK during the pandemic. This is not to say bias and evidence gaps don’t exist, but the idea that the inquiry needs to start from scratch is untethered from the norms of good research.

Finally, it is not clear how these stories will be used and presented back to the public in emotive narrative form. The Every Story Matters video states that: “the pandemic affected every single person in the UK and in many cases continues to have a lasting impact.” So far, the inquiry’s public engagement arm has released a series of four tapestries that focus exclusively on the experience of bereavement and long Covid. A more representative and deliberate selection of voices would help, but I doubt the inquiry will commission the likes of Bob Moran or other provocative rebel artists. 

Public engagement is always political. Favouring some stories over others is bound to reinforce the status quo. Unfortunately, these biases will continue to plague the inquiry’s attempts to come to terms with the totality of human suffering during the pandemic.


Kevin Bardosh is a research professor and Director of Research for Collateral Global, a UK-based charity dedicated to understanding the collateral impacts of Covid policies worldwide.

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Edward H
Edward H
11 months ago

I’m reminded that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

Andrew Nugee
Andrew Nugee
11 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

Oh! I love this; may I shamelessly plagiarise please?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
11 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

Thanks for saying this.

Andrew Nugee
Andrew Nugee
11 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

Oh! I love this; may I shamelessly plagiarise please?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
11 months ago
Reply to  Edward H

Thanks for saying this.

Edward H
Edward H
11 months ago

I’m reminded that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

Here WE go again!
The Saville Enquiry into so called ‘Bloody Sunday’ * cost a reputed £400million and lasted 12 years.

What did it tells us.! That the despised British Army had been naughty boys, whilst the sainted IRA had been squeaky clean!

This is national masochism of a very high order that we can ill afford.

(* For some ‘Good Sunday.)

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

Here WE go again!
The Saville Enquiry into so called ‘Bloody Sunday’ * cost a reputed £400million and lasted 12 years.

What did it tells us.! That the despised British Army had been naughty boys, whilst the sainted IRA had been squeaky clean!

This is national masochism of a very high order that we can ill afford.

(* For some ‘Good Sunday.)

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
11 months ago

This all started with the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ post – Apartheid. An exercise in mutual therapy which solved nothing, least of all the black government resorting to ‘getting even’ to cover up their own incompetence (see Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru,SNP etc etc).

It’s just another pointless smokescreen to avoid asking the really serious questions; did lockdowns and vaccines prevent more deaths than they caused?

I’ll be cancelled (must check my bank card still works).

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike Downing
Mike Downing
Mike Downing
11 months ago

This all started with the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ post – Apartheid. An exercise in mutual therapy which solved nothing, least of all the black government resorting to ‘getting even’ to cover up their own incompetence (see Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru,SNP etc etc).

It’s just another pointless smokescreen to avoid asking the really serious questions; did lockdowns and vaccines prevent more deaths than they caused?

I’ll be cancelled (must check my bank card still works).

Last edited 11 months ago by Mike Downing
Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
11 months ago

Thanks to Kevin Bardosh for this piece. The Covid Inquiry is just the sort of expensive diversion that the UK cannot afford. Only lawyers shall benefit from this exercise. Hardly anyone is going to have an opinion-changing epiphany when they read the report.
Kevin Bardosh makes the very important point that it is easier for the inquiry to gather evidence from bereaved families than it is to gather evidence from those adversely affected by COVID restrictions. Rather than address this potential bias, it seems that the Inquiry has done the opposite and embraced it.
The article mentions the British Academy’s “The COVID Decade” report. I am guessing that a lot of Unherd’s regular posters might object to some of its conclusions, but the 173-page report (no, I haven’t read it all) represents a much better value proposition than the COVID inquiry’s ouput.

Iris C
Iris C
11 months ago

Yes!, “it has affected every single person in the UK”, and by staving off OUR deaths (I am very elderly) at the expense of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was wrong. It has blighted their lives.
That should have been a central focus to The Enquiry recommending that lockdowns should never happen again..

Iris C
Iris C
11 months ago

Yes!, “it has affected every single person in the UK”, and by staving off OUR deaths (I am very elderly) at the expense of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren was wrong. It has blighted their lives.
That should have been a central focus to The Enquiry recommending that lockdowns should never happen again..

Peter Kwasi-Modo
Peter Kwasi-Modo
11 months ago

Thanks to Kevin Bardosh for this piece. The Covid Inquiry is just the sort of expensive diversion that the UK cannot afford. Only lawyers shall benefit from this exercise. Hardly anyone is going to have an opinion-changing epiphany when they read the report.
Kevin Bardosh makes the very important point that it is easier for the inquiry to gather evidence from bereaved families than it is to gather evidence from those adversely affected by COVID restrictions. Rather than address this potential bias, it seems that the Inquiry has done the opposite and embraced it.
The article mentions the British Academy’s “The COVID Decade” report. I am guessing that a lot of Unherd’s regular posters might object to some of its conclusions, but the 173-page report (no, I haven’t read it all) represents a much better value proposition than the COVID inquiry’s ouput.

Nic Cowper
Nic Cowper
11 months ago

I think we all know this will be a complete whitewash, ignoring bad reporting and modelling, inappropriate fear and coercion, really bad science ref vaccines and worst of all efficacy of lockdowns. Will it address govt procurement farces, examine furlough design and abuses, and social media censorship? Even though we now know vaccines were entirely useless at preventing infection therefore transmission, will there be recommendations to reemploy and compensate the 40,000 care sector workers dismissed for not having vaccines? Will the perpetrators of social distancing measures offer apologies to the families of thousands dead in care homes who were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones? Will those calling on unvaccinated people to die and not seek medical help if they became sick, be forced to issue statements about the utter stupidity of their words, not to say harm caused? Will we get laws to prevent a repeat of these same mistakes?
Answers on a postcard please.

Nic Cowper
Nic Cowper
11 months ago

I think we all know this will be a complete whitewash, ignoring bad reporting and modelling, inappropriate fear and coercion, really bad science ref vaccines and worst of all efficacy of lockdowns. Will it address govt procurement farces, examine furlough design and abuses, and social media censorship? Even though we now know vaccines were entirely useless at preventing infection therefore transmission, will there be recommendations to reemploy and compensate the 40,000 care sector workers dismissed for not having vaccines? Will the perpetrators of social distancing measures offer apologies to the families of thousands dead in care homes who were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones? Will those calling on unvaccinated people to die and not seek medical help if they became sick, be forced to issue statements about the utter stupidity of their words, not to say harm caused? Will we get laws to prevent a repeat of these same mistakes?
Answers on a postcard please.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
11 months ago

Brilliant little money earner for those involved in the enquiry, keep it going for as long as possible!
I am so skeptical that anything much will come from all this that could be relevant or helpful for the next pandemic.
It really doesn’t matter whether one is on the side of too much lockdown or not strict enough this “enquiry” will, in my view, only re-enforce some (at present unknown) predetermined view.
Ah well …..

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
11 months ago

Brilliant little money earner for those involved in the enquiry, keep it going for as long as possible!
I am so skeptical that anything much will come from all this that could be relevant or helpful for the next pandemic.
It really doesn’t matter whether one is on the side of too much lockdown or not strict enough this “enquiry” will, in my view, only re-enforce some (at present unknown) predetermined view.
Ah well …..

John Pade
John Pade
11 months ago

It might keep people busy who would otherwise be doing real mischief. Or be doing nothing at all. Let the studiers study. Move on.

John Pade
John Pade
11 months ago

It might keep people busy who would otherwise be doing real mischief. Or be doing nothing at all. Let the studiers study. Move on.

Frank Carney
Frank Carney
11 months ago

I think this is all about – to use the contemporary vocab – “centering” the emotional rather than the empirical.

Frank Carney
Frank Carney
11 months ago

I think this is all about – to use the contemporary vocab – “centering” the emotional rather than the empirical.

Robbie K
Robbie K
11 months ago

It can be very difficult to produce an inquiry or report without any percieved bias. The author describes it in detail, yet also reveals his own bias when describing the inquiry as having a ‘pro lockdown narrative’. They key is to be aware of it and even acknowledge it.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

But wouldn’t any attempt to identify your own biases be itself tainted by your biases?
There is so much self-flagellation in our society about the impossibility of ‘objective’ points of view, about the pervasive problem of individual perspective and the blinkers that limit your view. We need a Kantian revolution, to help people reorient their perspective on their perspective.
I think in reality people are well able to look at things from a disinterested point of view, if they are genuinely interested in doing so. (Of course, not everyone saying they are trying to be objective, is actually doing so – but dishonesty is a different problem… perhaps the much more serious one.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
11 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

But wouldn’t any attempt to identify your own biases be itself tainted by your biases?
There is so much self-flagellation in our society about the impossibility of ‘objective’ points of view, about the pervasive problem of individual perspective and the blinkers that limit your view. We need a Kantian revolution, to help people reorient their perspective on their perspective.
I think in reality people are well able to look at things from a disinterested point of view, if they are genuinely interested in doing so. (Of course, not everyone saying they are trying to be objective, is actually doing so – but dishonesty is a different problem… perhaps the much more serious one.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Kirk Susong
Robbie K
Robbie K
11 months ago

It can be very difficult to produce an inquiry or report without any percieved bias. The author describes it in detail, yet also reveals his own bias when describing the inquiry as having a ‘pro lockdown narrative’. They key is to be aware of it and even acknowledge it.