The government has got it right on the public inquiry into Covid-19: right that a comprehensive and rigorous assessment of every aspect of the handling of the pandemic should take place, right that it should be conducted independently, and right that it should look back at the whole course of the pandemic once it is over.
While Covid-19 continues to ravage the world, and when we witness the distressing predicament of India and many other under-vaccinated countries, it would be an act of hubris to declare the pandemic to be over just yet.
I hope that the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, which I chair, will, alongside the Health and Social Care Committee, be able to help with the public inquiry.
Week after week throughout the pandemic, from its earliest beginning, both of our committees have taken evidence on the record from ministers, their scientific advisers, people in charge of bodies like Public Health England and Test and Trace – as well as scientists and experts from all over the world.
One of the reasons we did so was to capture a picture in real time, and in detail, of what was on the minds of the key players at the time they were making decisions – to avoid having to rely only on the sometimes distorting lens of hindsight. More extensive and in greater depth either than statements to parliament, transcripts of press conferences or the minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), we have a substantial record of the sometimes changing views of practitioners.
Another reason why we took evidence throughout the pandemic was to be able to learn lessons on the way, which could be applied to make improvements to practice immediately – before the results of a post-pandemic public inquiry were available. We have given advice to government based on what we heard: that we should attend more to the experience of other countries than we did at first; that we should be transparent about Sage and its deliberations; that we should change from the heavily centralised organisation of Covid-19 tests in the first wave and take a decentralised approach to rolling out vaccines.
On 26 May, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, will be adding his evidence to that of others. Previous witnesses to our committee, and the public who have viewed them, will attest to our sessions being serious and forensic in discovering what happened – and in addition to his evidence to us, we will have questions for Mr Cummings. Following that appearance, the same will be true for the health secretary, Matt Hancock, when he comes before us on 10 June.
The next report of our joint committee will draw further lessons that, if applied now, can help the country respond well to the remaining course of the pandemic.
It is right that the public inquiry that the prime minister has announced should be conducted using the powers of the Inquiries Act. The chair of the inquiry will determine its approach. But I hope that its formality does not make it a defensive affair, with candour pinned back by legal caution.
I hope too that it will examine and draw lessons from the full range of experiences – including both what went well, like the vaccine success, and what went badly, such as the initial testing regime.
The whole British public has experienced – one way or another – Covid-19. The public inquiry must capture for future generations the wisdom that the experience has forced us to acquire.
Greg Clark is chair of the Science and Technology Select Committee, which is holding a joint inquiry – alongside the Health and Social Care Committee – into lessons to be learned from the response to the coronavirus pandemic. He is also the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells