17-July-20 COVID Politics

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Two interesting developments at the end of this week which relate to earlier posts here under COVID Criminology.

First, in my blog post 14-Jul-20 COVID-19 and Accountability, I talked about the role of a public inquiry in understanding the successes and failures of the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic.  On 15 July 2020, under pressure of questioning, Prime Minister Boris Johnson conceded in the House of Commons that there would be a public inquiry, although not until the crisis is over.  His argument is that it would be a waste of public resources employing civil servants in evidence gathering and inquiry administration, when we are still in the middle of fighting the virus. 

In 19-May-20 Public Inquiries and Scandal, I reflected on the costly and time-consuming nature of public inquiries, the mushrooming of recommendations, the majority of which are not monitored or implemented.

Yet, this tells us more about the failings of the current public inquiry model and is a poor excuse, given that the crisis may not be ‘over’ for a long time and lessons need to be learnt now.  In their report for the Institute of Government, How Public Inquiries Can Lead to Change Norris and Shepheard (2017) argue that politicians need to learn from the aircraft industry and use interim reports:

Interim reports are an under-utilised approach that can help inquiries deliver more rapidly on the key aim of preventing recurrence.  There can be downsides to interim reports – not least that they usually base their conclusions on limited information, given the shorter timescales. But there are many inquiries where a range of issues can be satisfactorily addressed before the final conclusion of the investigation. For example, in cases of industrial accidents or regulatory failure, some necessary changes may be well understood early on in the process. In these cases, there is little value in holding back useful findings and recommendations until the culmination of all the other investigations; an interim report will allow for earlier, immediate action. (Norris and Shepheard, 2017. p.22)

They cite the case of the Shoreham Air Disaster in 2015, for example, where a first report was released just 13 days later, pending a fuller investigation.  In addition, elements of an inquiry can be split out and proceed at different speeds, termed ‘modularisation’ (Norris and Shepheard, 2017, p.23).  It was used in the Baha Mousa inquiry and to some extent in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which is running 15 separate investigations, which have published at different times. 

There is no reason therefore why a tightly defined and tightly staffed inquiry could not start now, to ready us for a potential second wave over winter 2020/2021.

The second issue that emerged yesterday, was news that Russian (allegedly state-backed) hackers had been involved in targeting Western research organisations developing a coronavirus vaccine.  In 5-May-20 Password Spraying, 21-Apr-20 Entanglements and 29-Apr-20 Counterfeiting, I talked about the cyber-attack methods used by organised criminal and state actors and how a potential vaccine would be a key target for counterfeiters.

Speaking on Channel 4 News, Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev explained how the organisation attributed with the attack, APT29 (also known as Cozy Bear), is known for stealing data and using it for commercial, technological and political purposes.  An affiliated organisation, APT28 (also known as Fancy Bear) is believed to be linked to the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, since individuals have been identified working for both.  APT28 has been associated with election tampering and institutional attacks.  Grozev describes how APT28 weaponises data, holding it till the right time to release, to destabilise and sew mistrust between countries.

The problem in Russia is that the central government does not always have full oversight of this activity, given the multitude of powerful players in the country, and there is a risk that in the wrong hands the data could be gravely misused.

Of course, all countries are involved in espionage and all countries will be interested in the vaccine development progress in other countries – and may indeed be monitoring it through official and unofficial agencies.  There may also be other reasons for the UK Foreign Office making this announcement on Russia yesterday.  This is COVID politics and ‘vaccine nationalism’ (MD, in Private Eye (1526) July 2020), where the prospect of profit, winning the vaccine race and protecting one’s own citizens first, have diminished multilateral approaches to finding a global and affordable cure.

These are difficult times for global citizens but undoubtedly interesting times for scientists, including social scientists. 

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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