The People’s Covid Inquiry will scrutinise the government’s handling of the pandemic while we still have time to effect change
It is imperative to examine what impact public service cuts and privatisation had and how they impoverished both the NHS and communities bearing the brunt of the pandemic now.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This often-quoted observation cannot be more apt for the situation we all find ourselves in at present - already a yearlong coronavirus pandemic and an uncertain future.
The burning question on everyone’s mind is how on earth a nation with one of the best healthcare systems in the world is faced with one of the highest death rates. Hard on its heels comes an equally important supplementary - can this outcome be prevented or ameliorated for future generations?
No one is reassured by platitudinous responses that there was nothing more which could have been done. It is this self-satisfied arrogance which has contributed to the deadly predicament we are in now.
It only takes a moments reflection to realise that pandemics and epidemics have been a ghastly feature of daily life for centuries, causing the loss of millions of lives. Famously, Shakespeare was born in the middle of one which killed a quarter of the population of Stratford on Avon and thereafter during his lifetime theatres were closed more than they were open. The last century alone has seen epidemics of SARS, H1N1, MERS, Ebola, and Zika before SARS-CoV-2 caused Covid-19. So, have we learnt nothing? What planning took place beyond the Cygnus exercise?
This is but one of the target issues to be examined by this People’s Inquiry, driven and collated by ‘Keep our NHS Public’. It is taking place now because the public demand for an independent inquiry has not been met. The Prime Minister promised one, but absolutely nothing has been done. In any event, an inquiry of this magnitude can take years to set up, convene hearings and publish a report.
No one is reassured by platitudinous responses that there was nothing more which could have been done
There is a broad consensus, especially from the bereaved and the medical community for a more immediate review to learn the lessons of the government’s handling of the pandemic while we have time to effect change.
The health and social care committee, chaired by the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and the science and technology committee, chaired by Greg Clark launched a joint inquiry into the lessons learnt last year. They published a useful interim report in December with some practical suggestions for immediate implementation. But the report did not address the more fundamental factors described above, together with broader concerns in the years leading up to 2020 wherein it is imperative to examine what impact public service cuts and privatisation had and how they impoverished both the NHS and communities bearing the brunt of the pandemic now.
There will be a panel of four for the inquiry, three of whom are highly qualified and respected members of the medical profession. The nine hearings will be fortnightly on Wednesday evenings commencing on 24th of February.
The hearings will cover: How prepared was the NHS? How well did the government respond? Is a zero-Covid strategy possible? What happened to find, test, trace, isolate? What impact has the pandemic had on the population including families, social care and disability? What has the impact been on frontline staff and key workers? How has Covid affected inequalities and discrimination? Has public health been privatised? What has the impact been on schools, young people, women, and mental health?
Michael Mansfield QC is a human rights barrister and chair of the People's Covid Inquiry.