A lack of a balanced set of voices means that key questions remain unanswered
Two years after its official announcement, Baroness Hallett opened what will become the most expensive UK public inquiry; by some accounts, running over £500 million in the next three years.
The opening statements stressed the experience of bereaved families who lost loved ones to Covid. An emotionally charged film of their grief and suffering opened the inquiry.
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After acknowledging a vigil outside, Hallett stated that the inquiry was for the “millions who suffered and continue to suffer in different ways as a result of the pandemic,” leaving a lot of room for ambiguity.
The inquiry is set to answer three hard questions: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic? Were the measures taken appropriate? And what are the lessons for the future?
One would think these questions required a more balanced set of voices on the opening day. In the public consultation, it was the long-term impact of pandemic policies on children and young people that was most clearly emphasised.
The term ‘public inquiry’ begs two other fundamental questions: which members of the public will be privileged over others? And what methods of inquiry will be used to support the claims they make?
The first two public groups to take the stand were representatives of Scottish and Welsh bereaved families. Their respective governments also submitted opening statements that stressed their grief but made little reference to those “millions of others.” Nor, for that matter, the conclusions of the Scottish and Welsh government’s own health impact assessment that concluded lockdown harms were predictable and severe, especially for children.
A review of decades of UK public inquiries noted they are “by their nature controversial.” One of these will be about the science of lockdown. The opening statement by the Association of Directors of Public Health declared that “full lockdown was never anticipated as a reasonable worst-case scenario.” This is also reflected in the WHO’s recommendations for respiratory pandemics, from late 2019.
Yet the inquiry seemed genuinely confused by this. In this first week very little was said about Sweden, despite the country already having concluded its own public assessment that largely supported its ‘no lockdown’ approach. Instead, the inquiry was told to learn from Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and New Zealand.
The opening statement of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which represents the majority of UK unions, rightly pointed to the impact of austerity policies and the disproportionate impact of Covid on ethnic minorities. Yet no mention of ‘lockdown’ or its impacts on workers and minority groups. No consideration that the economic devastation of lockdown may itself further social programme austerity.
We may assume scientists will be more neutral and balanced. Yet these implicit biases have long crept into the scientific community. A series of articles commissioned by the BMJ for the inquiry were dominated by iSAGE members (think: Zero Covid) who will likely be over-represented in the months and years ahead. Yes, there are voices of critical appraisal, but will they be given sufficient attention?
In the 150 lockdown questions sent by Baroness Hallett to Boris Johnson, a number of them are leading questions, suggesting that he did not lockdown fast enough or hard enough. This appears to be the theme of the inquiry, which is continuing the same inversion of the precautionary principle that has dominated in the legal profession: the right to be protected from Covid stands above all other rights, even when scientific evidence is uncertain.
This value judgement, and the central stage given to bereaved families, is probably why those attending have been asked to take Covid tests and other safety measures. This is no longer government policy.
We seem to be stuck in the same traps: over-emphasising the effectiveness of Covid interventions, under-estimating their evidence-base, and sidestepping their unintended consequences and harms.
The inquiry can’t make everyone happy. But it should strive for balance, objectivity and a rigorous look at the totality of evidence. It is the least the British public deserves for a few £100 million. But from the opening week, I am unsure.
Follow Kevin Bardosh on Twitter @KevinBardosh