A full public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic must be set up without delay - Andrew Vine

AMID remembrance of the lost, there is something else that today’s anniversary of lockdown demands – a proper accounting of how this crisis has been handled and the mistakes made.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to receive the first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine administered by nurse and Clinical Pod Lead, Lily Harrington at Westminster Bridge Vaccination Centre at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA.

There must be no more delay or prevarication over a full public inquiry into Covid-19, nor lame excuses that now is not the time to take an unflinching look at what happened and why. Now is exactly the right time for an inquiry to be set up. At this moment of reflection, the memory of those who have died deserves no less.

Those who grieve for them deserve answers. So do those who have survived Covid, some with long-term health problems as a result. The NHS and care staff who worked themselves to exhaustion need to know why our country was hit so hard by the pandemic. Lessons need to be learned, not just about how Britain handled all that has happened, but for how it copes with a resurgence of the virus, perhaps with new, even deadlier strains, or another pandemic. That will only happen as a result of an inquiry that probes every aspect of this crisis.

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If it results in the destruction of careers, then so be it. There are hundreds of thousands of people across the country whose livelihoods have been destroyed, and they are yet another group that deserves and demands to know why.

The Government’s refusal to establish an inquiry, or even give a timeline for when it might happen, grows increasingly absurd because we already know so much. No event since the Second World War has been chronicled so comprehensively and minutely as the Covid crisis. We know an immense amount about the inner workings of the Government, the decisions that were taken – and the failures to take decisions.

One book, Failures of State, published earlier this month, presents a convincingly detailed account of chaos within the Government at key moments. Ministers are giving off-the-record briefings about what went on inside 10 Downing Street as the crisis deepened. Accounts by doctors and nurses are giving chilling insights into an NHS on the verge of being overwhelmed.

Credible research is producing uncomfortable reading, such as that from the Resolution Foundation last week, which said that delaying the winter lockdown cost 27,000 lives because clear evidence of a steep rise in cases before Christmas was not acted upon.

And crucially, the Prime Minister’s former key aide, Dominic Cummings, who was at the heart of the Government, last week spelled out to MPs what he claimed to be serious failings at the Department of Health, describing it as a “smoking ruin”.

These disparate accounts are gradually merging into a comprehensive picture of how the pandemic developed and the steps taken to combat it.

Against such a backdrop, it is disingenuous of the Government to prevaricate over establishing an inquiry with full investigative powers. The story is out, but it demands official status in order to inform the actions of this and future generations of Ministers.

Boris Johnson’s insistence that it would be wrong to set up an inquiry when efforts to combat the pandemic are continuing is a slippery attempt to delay a day of reckoning. There is never going to be a point when the Government can say, “Covid-19 is beaten – now we can have an inquiry”. All the science says that this virus is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, but hopefully on a manageable basis like winter flu.

So waiting for some undefined point in the future when there is the luxury of time for an inquiry without Covid in the background just doesn’t wash. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that officialdom can move at lightning speed when required.

There is no reason why a proper and thorough inquiry could not be conducted and its conclusions published within a few months. Its focus will inevitably be on a fairly limited pool of people – the Prime Minister and Cabinet, their civil servants, the scientific advisers and those in charge of the NHS.

It is fear of the consequences that is preventing a date being set. The success of the vaccination programme has boosted Mr Johnson’s popularity and image as a leader. That crashes and burns if failings are laid bare and exposure of complacency, indecision and delay at key moments are given an official inquiry’s stamp of authority.

This needs to be brought into the light, not only by the media, but by a judge-led inquiry. It is too important to be avoided or kicked down the road, both for the country’s future, and the memory of all those we mourn.