Law Gazette

The government is facing calls for a public inquiry into its response to the coronavirus pandemic. What form should such an inquiry take and what should it investigate?

A‘public inquiry’ into the government and state reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic is widely seen as inevitable. But is it actually necessary to hold one? If an inquiry is set up, what form might it take and what would it actually be looking into? We note that inquiries are at their most useful where they are properly focused, reach findings about matters of keen public concern as quickly as possible and make recommendations for action that will make a real difference in the future.

Authors: Richard A. Spafford Nicholas Griffin

Why hold a public inquiry?

There are different forms of inquiry but they have one thing in common: they are generally a response to events of public concern, calling into question state action (or inaction) and giving rise to shaken confidence in public systems or services. There may be a need to set out exactly what has happened and why, and to make recommendations for action to avoid such events in future. The test for the more formal sort of inquiry held under the Inquiries Act 2005 is succinctly put so that a minister may set one up where it appears to him or her that ‘(a) particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern, or (b) there is public concern that particular events may have occurred’ (section 1(1)).

There may also be good reasons not to hold a public inquiry. They generally come down to the considerable cost and duration involved, and the diversion of manpower and other resources away from other important tasks.

Currently, there would appear to be a solid basis for triggering an inquiry into Covid-19. Boris Johnson has recently called Covid-19 ‘the most vicious threat the country has faced in [his] lifetime’. The Queen referred to ‘a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all’. In rising to this considerable and daunting challenge, the government has been criticised for doing too little, too late in circumstances where the death toll is already in the tens of thousands. Furthermore, government actions are responsible for a partial shutdown of the economy, with major repercussions for our future prosperity and what looks set to be a lengthy period before we are truly back on our feet.

While there may be grounds for triggering an inquiry, is the government under an obligation to do so? Some calls for an inquiry have been made on the basis that the government is required to hold one, at least into certain aspects of its response. For example, the TUC has called for an inquiry into the ‘grotesque’ failure to provide frontline workers with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Lawyers have also argued that there is an obligation under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to hold one to consider matters such as this.

The government has maintained that it has taken the right steps at the right time to combat this unprecedented global pandemic, guided at all times by the best scientific advice. It has not committed to a public inquiry, but there are signs from senior ministers that this stance is softening a little. Dominic Raab agreed that ‘there are definitely lessons to be learned and when we get through this crisis it will be important that we take stock’. And Michael Gove has accepted that, ‘undoubtedly this government, like all governments, will have made mistakes’, and that the time will come for ‘deep and probing questions about lessons we can learn as a country from how we handled this crisis in its early stages’.