On 14 July 2020, I wrote a blog here on COVID-19 and accountability, thinking through how we monitor real-time and later review governance of the pandemic. I wrote elsewhere about the difficulties of securing compliance with COVID laws. I would not have imagined at that time that the UK Prime Minister himself would be found to have broken COVID lockdown laws and sanctioned through a fixed penalty notice.
The volume of fixed penalty notices, issued as part of Operation Hillman into illegal gatherings in Downing Street and Whitehall, is embarrassing for the Government. It likely reflects a cultural bubble which ministers and civil servants can come to inhabit, acting over and for, but not alongside us.
The revelations are devastating too for those who followed the rules in care homes and hospitals and who now feel that their sacrifices, and lost time with loved ones, were needless.
Our criminal justice system focuses on individual wrongdoing. It is important however not to lose sight of the wider issues of accountability.
Under somewhat muted coverage given events in Ukraine, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on 17 March 2022 two public inquiries into the handling of the pandemic, one for Scotland (already announced by Scotland’s Deputy First Minister on 14 December 2021) and one for the UK as a whole. You can follow developments on the UK inquiry website and the Scottish Inquiry website, although Inquiry Chairs Baroness Hallett and Lady Poole, respectively, are unlikely to be calling for evidence before 2023. Such is the slow pace of scrutiny.
Although the UK inquiry draft terms of reference are being finalised (the Scottish terms are here), the Commons Library reveals that the topics of focus are likely to include:
- the use of public health powers and expertise (e.g. lockdowns and other restrictions, mask requirements, medical evidence)
- health and social care policy (e.g. ventilator and PPE availability, shielding, care homes, test and trace, vaccine rollout)
- justice policy and administration (e.g. law enforcement, prisons, remote proceedings in courts and tribunals)
- education and childcare settings (e.g. closures/re-opening, exam contingencies)
- housing and homelessness (e.g. support, notice periods and evictions)
- financial impacts (e.g. furlough, business support, Statutory Sick Pay, public sector procurement safeguards)
- intergovernmental decision-making between the UK Government and devolved administrations.
Notably, the Scottish inquiry’s terms refer specifically to the impact of pandemic decision-making on human rights. The UK inquiry does not. In September 2021, Strathclyde University published a paper explaining how a human rights framework could add value to a public inquiry on COVID in terms of structure, process and outcomes.
The public inquiry should be a space for candid review of lessons learnt, which in turn requires that those asked to give evidence feel that they can be honest. However, it should also be unflinching in exposing, for example, poor political decision-making and cronyism in the private outsourcing and award of COVID-infrastructure related contracts. This would not only put us in a better place for future pandemics, but help improve the culture of our politics.
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2022.
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