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The Covid Inquiry is not taking broad enough advice about the pandemic

4 min read

Organisations wishing to take part in arguably the most important component of the Covid-19 Inquiry have until the end of this week to apply to be core participants.

“Module 2” will examine political and administrative decision-making in the UK throughout the period of the pandemic, with a particular focus on early 2020.

But many businesses and their representative bodies will be disappointed by the limited scope of the Inquiry’s intended investigation since it has opted to concentrate on the correctness or otherwise of the government’s decisions in relation to public health, rather than examine whether government followed the science too closely to the exclusion of all other considerations including economic factors.

This is surprising in light of Rishi Sunak’s recent criticisms of government decision-making during the pandemic. He revealed that this was badly distorted by over-reliance on scientific and medical advice. “I wasn’t allowed to talk about the trade-off,” he said. He pointed out that whereas a cost benefit calculation had always been a basic requirement for every public health intervention, this did not happen in relation to pandemic decisions. SAGE was, in effect, given the power to decide whether the country would lockdown or not.  No other perspective was allowed.

The scope of Module 2 is as yet provisional but the draft that has been published here suggests that the Inquiry will look almost exclusively at what happened, rather than what did not happen, during the decision-making process.  So, the Inquiry will look at “access to and use in decision-making of medical and scientific expertise, data collection and modelling relating to the spread of the virus” but it will not examine why the government appears not at any point to have reached out to obtain wider advice and expertise.  It will examine non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI’s) including lockdowns and other curtailments on contact, and the development of the approach to NPI’s, but will do so only because it wants to understand “their impact on transmission, infection and death”.

The difficulty with this, of course, is that as well as being a public health emergency, the pandemic was also an economic emergency. The statistics bear this out.  According to the House of Commons Library, the number of people in work fell by 825,000 people in 2020, while unemployment rose by almost 400,000 and the number who were economically inactive rose by 327,000. Redundancies reached record highs while UK working hours dropped to the lowest since 1994. By early 2021, employment levels began to improve but economic inactivity continued to grow, peaking in December 2021-February 2022 at 8.89 million economically inactive people, nearly 450,000 more than in January-March 2020. As the Library pointed out, this meant that two years after the start of the pandemic, employment levels were still around 350,000 lower than they had been before it began.

Most will agree that faced with the enormous challenge of the pandemic the government had to take draconian action. But even allowing for the fact that swift decisions needed to be made initially, it should then have taken a step back and recognised that it needed access to alternative advice for future decisions so that it was properly informed of their widest possible implications. Without advice on economic factors in particular, it seems inevitable that government decisions would always have been weighted towards minimising health impacts on the population with other consequences not adequately considered. Alternative sources of advice might not have changed every decision, but they might have changed some.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 inquiry as currently set up will perpetuate this flawed approach. Whilst it is open to the business community to apply to be core participants in Module 2, it looks as if one of their key concerns will be ignored since the Inquiry does not intend to review the failure of government to take advice on the economic and business impacts of its decisions.

Stephen Parkinson is senior partner at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP and an expert in Public Inquiries.

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