The Guardian view on the Covid inquiry: looking for justice | Editorial
Only by learning from the past’s mistakes can we hope to avoid repeating them. That is why public inquiries have become part of the machinery of the British state and society. Live inquiries include those on the Grenfell Tower fire, the Manchester Arena attack, undercover policing, and child sexual abuse. Scrutiny of the UK’s Covid-19 response and its glaring failures is anxiously awaited. That 20,000 responses to a consultation on the inquiry’s terms of reference have poured in from bereaved families, frontline workers, their representatives and others indicates the strength of interest and feeling.
Heather Hallett, who will chair the inquiry, has yet to feed back to ministers. But if the process is to gain people’s confidence, its terms should be adjusted to reflect the public response. The many social injustices thrown into brutally sharp relief by the pandemic must be a strong focus of any meaningful investigation. So politicians, as well as Lady Hallett, should be worried that the leaders of several black, Asian and minority ethnic groups do not believe that the effects of race and racism will be given sufficient weight. In a letter, they have called for an examination of racism to be a “specific programme of work”, rather than subsumed under a broad commitment to look at disparities relating to protected characteristics, which also include disability, age, pregnancy and maternity.
Other inequalities besides racial ones require scrutiny. And racial inequalities overlap with other issues, notably economic marginalisation. But the letter writers have a strong case. Much higher rates of death and illness, as well as the uneven impact of the disruption to education and many other areas of life, are likely to add up to a long-term effect on race equality, they note. Their complaint also raises a wider question about public inquiries more broadly.
The retired judges who lead these processes are, while far from representative of the population, experienced public servants with a degree of independence. When bureaucracies are implicated in wrongdoing, an inquiry can – as has been proved in the past – be an effective way to get at the truth and ensure some measure of accountability and improve practice in future, potentially saving lives. But if the Covid-19 inquiry is to deliver results in a reasonable timeframe, Lady Hallett will have to decide where to focus.
The scope of the task before her is vast. The list of topics to be covered includes many of the key decisions taken by the UK government over the past two years, as well as scrutiny of the health and care system. The job now is to decide on priorities, and in doing so to build trust with the families and communities for whom the inquiry has the deepest significance. Following last month’s high court ruling that the government’s instruction to discharge people from hospitals into care homes without testing them for Covid was unlawful, finding out how this dreadful decision was reached must be high on the list.
Pandemic policymaking will be explored in other places too. Parliament has a role to play, while the sociology professor and journalist Gary Younge has proposed that the links between racism and Covid could be discussed at public meetings. None of these mechanisms will be sufficient on its own. Their effectiveness will depend on how much public and political will can be mobilised behind them. Lady Hallett’s next moves are crucial.