Setting up the COVID-19 inquiry: an expert view

The inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic is due to start work in the spring, chaired by Baroness (Heather) Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge. It will be one of the most complex inquiries in legal history, and highly charged politically, with over 150,000 deaths so far, and the pandemic far from over. In January, the UCL Political Science Department hosted an expert panel discussion to pool advice on how best to set up a complex inquiry to ensure that it works speedily and efficiently, victims feel they have been heard, and the findings are accepted as legitimate. Ioana Măxineanu summarises their contributions.

On January 13th, the UCL Political Science Department hosted an online seminar entitled Setting Up the Covid Inquiry. The event was chaired by Robert Hazell, and brought together three distinguished panellists previously involved in high profile inquiries: Lord (Nicholas) Phillips, chair of the BSE Inquiry (1998-2000); Margaret Aldred, secretary of the Iraq Inquiry (2009-2016); and Brian Leveson, chair of the inquiry into press regulation (2011-2012).

This post summarises the initial contributions of the three speakers. The full event, including a very informative and interesting Q&A, is available on the Political Science Department’s YouTube page.

Lord Phillips

Lord Phillips started by explaining the background of the BSE Inquiry. In 1986, the first case of BSE (mad cow disease) was identified in England. The disease deforms the proteins in the brain, and is inevitably fatal. The Conservative government appointed an expert committee to advise on the possibility of humans contracting the disease. The committee concluded that the risk was remote, a view the government passed on to the public. Unfortunately, that was wrong. In 1995, the first death of a man who contracted the human equivalent, Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease, was identified. Many felt misled by the previous guidance.

In late 1997, a non-statutory public inquiry was set up by the incoming Labour government. Lord Phillips was provided with two assessors: June Bridgeman, a retired senior civil servant, and Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, a geneticist. They were full members of the tribunal, so they could write appropriate sections of the report. Paul Walker, a barrister in Lord Phillips’ chambers, was appointed as counsel to the tribunal.

The inquiry’s terms of reference required Lord Phillips to report within a year, which he had to extend twice. In the end, the Inquiry took nearly three years. It looked at 10 years of government activity, with a huge amount of documents. A large team of young people, many of them students, was recruited to help digest the documents.

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The Chilcot report offers important lessons about decision making for future generations of political leaders and officials

David HS

Much of the media reaction to the Chilcot report has inevitably focused on what it says about Tony Blair. However, the report also offers plenty of powerful long-term insights about decision making. David Laughrin suggests that there is a danger that these lessons will not reach their intended audience. Sir John Chilcot and his team should therefore be urged to build on their seven years’ lifetime investment, and invest some more on its implementation. They would have much to contribute.

 My wife has just finished reading War and Peace, a long read though apparently shorter than the Chilcot report. She believes that everyone should read Tolstoy’s gripping thesis about why countries should not go to war lightly and why older men and women should not be trusted to put young men’s or women’s lives at risk. But she suspects that this will not happen in these days when tweets are more read than novels or newspapers or indeed the Chilcot Report.

After reading the 911 paragraphs of the Executive Summary of the Chilcot report – surely some kind of record for an Executive Summary? – I fear the same fate for Chilcot as for Tolstoy. But future academics and deliverers of learning and development for civil servants, themselves a scarce commodity at present, surely need to bend their efforts to ensure that we do better.

For although Chilcot acknowledges that the particular set of circumstances that led to the war in Iraq and its inadequate follow up are unlikely to be repeated, there are plenty of powerful long term insights lurking in the lucid prose. Some are so stark that they do not even lurk, but jump out of the pages.

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