Responding to public pressure and the criticisms of bereaved families, many states have begun to examine the actions and decisions taken during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public inquiries or parliamentary investigations are an essential step in this examination and can provide lessons to support an effective future response to crisis. In any such investigation, the question of who investigates and what is investigated can be as important as the findings themselves. However, a barrier to learning will be the political pressure not to own up to failures or failings, particularly where it concerns a culture of government or a style of governance still practiced. What this can collectively amount to is a failure to learn: a critical failing where it is not question of if a future crisis arises – but when.
The long-awaited Sue Gray report investigating breaches of lockdown rules by senior UK government figures and staff in Number 10 has finally been released. The appointment of Sue Gray, a civil servant, to investigate officials including who was ultimately her own boss, raised questions about capacity where she could be impartial – but not independent. What could be investigated by Gray was also in question – which events, attended by whom – along with whether there could be consequences for any discovery of rule-breaking. The latter being answered by a belated start to an investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
Publication of the report follows the conclusion of an investigation by the police where 126 fines were issued to 83 people, including the prime minister. Prior to publication of the Sue Gray report, the prime minister stated that events did not happen or if they did, rules were not broken. However, with the issuance of fines, the law most certainly was broken. “Partygate” has become a political catch-22, where the prime minister and his staff can only argue that they either did not understand or did not follow their own rules.
Post-investigation and publication of the report, the question is what political repercussions the prime minister will face as focus in Westminster turns away from the law-breaking to whether he lied to parliament. There will be strong political pressure to say that apologies have been made, and it is now time to ‘move on’ and get on with the work of government. In parliamentary questions on the day the report was released, he did exactly this.
However, learning from past action and its impact is the work of government. If there was uncertainty over the rules at play in Partygate, this is only one example of the management style of the current government which has primarily relied on minister-made law in the form statutory instruments (SI) rather than on legislation that has passed through Parliament. This form of rule-by-minister was not new to the pandemic, but has also characterised the government’s approach to Brexit, including the “rubber-stamping” by Parliament of significant changes to the law. Hardly effective scrutiny.
Both with Brexit and COVID-19, Parliament has had little time to scrutinise new rules in the form of SIs. New COVID-19 rules sometimes came into force within hours of being introduced by ministers, were often rife with errors, or changed more quickly than the public (and police) could keep up. The 126 Partygate fines are among over 118,000 fixed penalty notices issued in England and Wales since March 2020. In April 2021, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-Parliamentary group, called for all fixed penalty notices to be reviewed, finding them to be “muddled, discriminatory and unfair” and determined by a process which “disproportionately hits the less well-off and criminalises the poor”. No such review has taken place.
Inquiries are a beginning to learning from the actions taken during crisis and their impact. They are also essential to identifying problematic forms of governance. As we know from the Sue Gray report, what can be investigated is as important as the findings themselves. In the Republic of Ireland, the focus of parliamentary investigation is on the biomedical aspect: gathering medical experts and epidemiologists to dissect the public health response. This risks, however, missing the interconnectedness of public health with the political, economic and social realities.
Simply, it is not just the science, but also the social sciences that dictate how well a state can respond to a health emergency. Vaccine production is dependent on working supply chains, and vaccine hesitancy is closely linked with social inequalities. It also does not address the interface between the science and the governance, or as Paul Kahn writes, “A pandemic arises when biology meets politics.”
By contrast, the EU response was troubled by a late start, and poor coordination among its Member States, as well as having few competences (or powers) to act during a health crisis. In April 2022, the European Parliament’s Special Committee on COVID-19 pandemic began its investigations in an effort to identify lessons learned, with a focus on four areas: health; respect for democracy and fundamental rights; societal and economic impact; and the EU and the World. This wide-ranging inquiry will aim to produce recommendations on issues including the level of coordination among Member States, the impact on individuals and vulnerable groups, and the EU’s role in addressing supply-chain bottle necks and trade-related barriers. The recommendations are due in twelve months.
In the UK, two public inquiries are now underway – one by the Scottish government, and the second by the UK government. While narrower than the EU investigations, they will nevertheless aim to investigate a range of issues including the use of public health powers and expertise, financial impacts, including public sector procurement safeguards, and intergovernmental decision-making between central and devolved governments.
The first stage of the UK inquiry analysing the Terms of Reference, or areas which can be investigated, was completed this month. Baroness Hallett, appointed by the prime minister to lead the UK inquiry, requested changes to the Terms of Reference to foreground the unequal impact of the pandemic, as well as a sharpened focus on aspects including regulatory control. Whether this will include concerning use of SIs, or a culture of governing without Parliament remains to be seen. Despite criticism and unlike its Scottish and EU counterparts, the UK inquiry will not explicitly consider the human rights impact of the pandemic and the government’s response.
With no published timeline, it will likely be years before any reports see the light of day. Like the Gray report, or the ongoing Grenfell inquiry before it, publication will also likely be subject to political wrangling and an eye on election cycles.
Inquiries are also only a beginning. Whether they are meaningful depends on whether change to institutions, or to culture, follow. This in turn relies on a political willingness to own up to failures and to make necessary changes. In a pandemic era, where public trust, compliance and solidarity can be a matter of life and death – Partygate has shown the importance of clear rules, and for those who make the rules to follow them. In the resistance to inquiry and reporting, it has also revealed the political pressure not to learn.
The UK prime minister may well weather the publishing of the Sue Gray report. His government, if still in power, may also prove to be immune from criticism in any future reporting on the COVID-19 response. However, where lessons are still unlearned – it’s not time to party.