In recent weeks the ongoing Covid Inquiry in the UK has attracted a lot of media attention, but has the focus been too much on name calling trivialities and apportioning blame, rather than identifying key lessons to enhance our net resilience?
My purpose here is to look at the lengthy and expensive UK inquiry into how the British Government handled the Covid crisis and ask if we are ever going to hear anything of value to the international resilience community?
I suspect I’m not the only one who occasionally watches this televised forum chaired by Baroness Hallett and delivered by criminal KC barristers quizzing various witnesses. At times it seems more targeted on the crude vulgarities within WhatsApp messages, blaming others, name-calling, and trivialities; all part of the inevitable fallout of what appears to have been almost internecine warfare inside No.10 Downing Street.
For example, what senior officials, even Prime Ministers, said about colleagues in moments of exasperation is mistakenly treated like the real substance of the issue, but it has no relevance at all to those striving to increase our overall resilience by actually learning key lessons from events during 2020/1.
The appearance of Boris Johnson and others then in government has become a major UK media spectacle that is also being broadcast to other countries. With the knowledge that these public hearings are scheduled to last for another few years I can hear TV remote controls being anxiously clicked in pursuit of other more enlightening channels – yet it’s vital that we learn key lessons from Covid as soon as we can – if possible. However, as Lord William Hague succinctly pointed out in the Times newspaper on 5 December: “The adversarial courtroom atmosphere encourages all concerned to cover their backs rather than reflect on what they could have done better”.
The trouble is, the British seem to love their inquiries which are often a knee-jerk reaction from disgruntled parliamentarians (far be it from me to suggest that it might also be in the self-interest of governments to specifically delay investigative reports when findings of incompetence seem likely).
At this point it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to a House of Commons Health & Science Committee report published many months ago that did make several post Covid recommendations, such as improving the UK National Risk Register, preparing better contingency plans, and improved sharing of data. It also states the intention of its report is not to apportion blame, but it’s still sad to read in the conclusions and recommendations chapter of this comparatively short and less binding report than the Covid inquiry, only two brief mentions of the noun resilience: (a) Investment in resilience is at risk of being trumped by the day-to-day pressures of Government and (b)The UK should aim to be a world leader in co-ordinating international resilience planning. I am presently more certain of the former than the latter.
All eyes are now on the far greater media spectacle of the Covid Inquiry (reportedly c£100m spent on it so far). Although this makes compelling material for popular television and tabloid headlines, could this be at the cost of identifying critical learning points and setting up corrective actions without delay? I am sure Baroness Hallett will be aware that previous inquiries and investigations have occasionally been comprehensive or timely, but rarely both. Given the mutating/accelerating threat landscape ahead of us, this time we surely need the two to combine, noting in this and similar cases, the often uneasy relationship between politics and science.
On which point, science is often about rigorous examination of its predictions and interventions in the face of empirical evidence, in which case scientists in a Covid type scenario have to risk mistakes all the time, especially where, as in all similar crises, they are forced to make judgment calls in the face of incomplete and uncertain data, a point that I will refer to later. In such circumstances, there is no shame in mistakes, but that’s easier said than done compared to apportioning blame and pursing culprits to excoriate in the glare of publicity.
I fear that the danger with this very expensive inquiry is that it could turn into a blame game which too easily concludes that we had the wrong people in charge and their subsequent removal is, to a greater or lesser extent, thought to solve the problem. There is also an associated risk that such inquiries might inadvertently diminish any successes (and by comparison to other countries, there were some) in pursuit of finding people to excoriate, with the problems remedied by zooming in on the guilty who by now have moved on in any case.
In the world of ‘permacrisis’ (Collins English Dictionary ‘word of the year’ 2022) the publication of Covid Inquiry findings several years from now, are likely to become little more than an historical curiosity, rather than of critical and relevant importance in the preparation and delivery of increased resilience.
This is especially troubling when we consider how important it is to preserve and maintain a constant feedback loop in the resilience process to learn lessons ASAP.
On the other hand, should we just accept that the German philosopher Hegel was prophetically correct 200 years ago: “What experience and history teach is that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it”?
In recent years I have become particularly familiar with how criminal barristers stridently conduct their business in courts of law with sharp and proficient determination to prove the guilt or innocence of an accused. When I observe this style of targeted and accusatorial questioning during the Covid Inquiry, sometimes aimed at undermining witness credibility, I cannot help thinking it’s not exactly ideal when the inquiry terms of reference are nothing about guilt or innocence. Indeed, it is precluded from ruling on, or making a determination, as to a person’s civil or criminal liability.
One of those giving evidence during the inquiry reported their own unsettling experience: “The KC questioning me launched into an attack on my credentials. I’m a clinical epidemiologist and author of 450 peer-reviewed publications. I’ve advised governments and parliamentary all-party groups”.
I believe these are very important points when it comes to what should be constructively learning from mistakes and urgently propping up our net resilience from the condition that it’s presently in. If only. Perhaps it’s worth looking more closely at the inquiry terms of reference. Importantly these include:
- To examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic.
- To highlight where lessons identified from preparedness and the response to the pandemic may be applicable to other civil emergencies.
From these terms of reference flow two stated aims. The first is to provide an account of what took place with the second to “identify the lessons to be learned from the above, to inform preparations for future pandemics across the UK”.
For me, and I guess most people in the pursuit of better resilience, it should, at the very least, be about highlighting lessons identified to inform preparations for future pandemics across the UK. In short, we need to learn from the results ASAP – before the next pandemic and also ahead of whatever other catastrophe this country might have to face as the fundamentals of effective crisis management in particular, span most, if not all, scenarios.
I suggest that it follows that the two areas where the inquiry could make a distinctive and valuable contribution are (a) the adequacy of the preparations made prior to the pandemic, and (b) the decision-making process within government during the pandemic – without seeking to apportion guilt or innocence, or dwell on name-calling and trivialities that current lines of questioning often seem to focus on.
Not wholly unconnected, the Institute for Government has separately found that: “Wide-ranging public inquiries tend to take longer and, most critically, risk not extracting relevant learning in time to prevent comparable failures. While the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry exposed the shortfalls and flaws in the decision to invade Iraq, for example, the 7 years the inquiry took to report is thought to have reduced the impact of its recommendations”. I am concerned that could also be the case with the Covid Inquiry, despite the need for urgency as outlined above.
One lesson, similar to so many crises before, is what might be called ‘denialism’ which probably took hold during 2020/21. It is the way in which dissenting voices, even in science, are dismissed as malign or confused, or just brushed off as ‘sceptics. As one informed reporter at the time said: “When skepticism becomes a dirty word, science is in deep trouble”.
The well-known journalist and previous editor of BBC 4’s Today program, Rod Liddle, reported not dissimilar conclusions: “It is clear now that this inquiry – which may end up costing a quarter of a billion pounds – is evolving into an attack on those who questioned the official policies of lockdown, mask-wearing, and so on. If officialdom is turning a blind eye to the results of lockdown in an attempt to exculpate its architects, the inquiry will be a missed opportunity of historic proportions.”
In saying all of this I do not wish to appear overtly critical of the government in setting up the Covid Inquiry. It is essential that events not that long ago are thoroughly, and promptly, analysed. It’s just that previous inquiries and investigations have sometimes been thorough or timely, but rarely both – yet that is what we need now.
Moreover, in this case I cannot helping thinking that the conduct of the inquiry seems to reflect a popularist criminal trial, rather than focussing on vital lessons to grasp now before the next pandemic, or indeed, one of the many potential other crises currently blinking as incoming threats on risk radar screens active in many countries.
I have been fortunate in the past to be deeply involved with large scale in-house inquiries into tragedies such as the 1987 King’s Cross fire, numerous riots in the UK, and a national review of UK security, especially resilience, plus reviewing board competences of multinational organizations. Granted these were on a much lesser scale than the colossal impact of the Covid pandemic, but how they were organized makes me think that we might indeed be missing something significant with this particular inquiry. So what can we do to improve?
A friend of mine who is a senior figure in the internationally respected UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch points out that their job is to help prevent further avoidable accidents from occurring, and never to establish blame or liability. The MAIB receive between 1500 and 1800 reports of accidents of all types and severity each year, many in countries far beyond the UK. Because all witnesses in their inquiries are reminded that blame or liability are not issues, the resulting value from those explaining their actions is far greater than those in the Covid inquiry who, as already mentioned, are often more anxious about covering their backs, rather than honest reflection. Adding this all up, perhaps an improved way to conduct future inquires might be to:
- Be far more strident in the uncluttered pursuit of identifying lessons that are of direct relevance to improving resilience.
- Avoid any inquiry becoming saturated with accounts of crude vulgarities on social media messages, blaming others, name-calling, and comparative trivialities.
- Avoid appointing criminal barristers who are clearly skilled in the conduct of criminal trails where the whole focus is on proving guilt or innocence and who sometimes seek to undermine the credibility of those giving evidence in pursuit of what is clearly the wrong objective. Appoint, instead, those who have skills in the conduct of interviews in non-adversarial and far less accusatorial environments, where the identification of learning lessons is the goal within resilience feedback loops, rather than endless quizzing on matters that have little or no relevance to this essential purpose.
- Seek the unexpurgated records kept by log keepers. Maintaining such records are a fundamental requirement of any crisis management team(s) for obvious reasons. However, it seems far from clear that despite the enormous impact of the Covid pandemic, such accurate records actually exist in coherent form. I have read before the obvious point that if we don’t log it, we cannot learn from it.
- Deliver honest and timely outcomes that also help to assuage the deep anxieties of those who suffered and/or are sadly bereaved.
Lord Hague was spot on his recent Times Newspaper article mentioned earlier when he concluded: “One of the lessons to be learnt from Covid might well be that there must be a better way to learn them”. Linked to this might be a wider question: Should we also frame all crises as catalysts for forward momentum? In other words, to manage such events through the prism of agile change to always adapt and improve in a forward direction, rather than just strive to bounce back – and to realise that mistakes, not condemnations, are important in the process of learning.
All this requires an objective to learn from the past with a firm eye on the future as we move forward in our interconnected world, observing important decisions will have to be made much more often on rafts of uncertainty, rather than seeking the elusive comfort of dependable data, which, given the speed of spreading crises in the 21stcentury, runs the risk of being inaccurate, irrelevant, or even misleading.
In summary, we need to stop the blame game now. It would be an absolute tragedy if in any future inquiry we find ourselves once more struggling to hear any lessons to help benefit the resilience of nations.
Peter Power FBCI FIRM BA JP has considerable hands-on experience of real time events and for many years has supported various governments and organizations in several different countries. He occasionally appears on TV and radio as an expert guest and is a Vice Chairman of the Resilience Association. He is also a past member of the UK Security Review Commission (IPPR) and previous Chairman of the World Conference on Disaster Management. Peter is a co-author of the UK Cabinet Office / BSI standard on Crisis Management (BS11200) and in an earlier life was instrumental in helping to create/promulgate the UK ‘Gold/Silver/Bronze’ Crisis Command System. He is quoted in the UK Government Guide on Integrated Emergency Management and is the author of many guidebooks, including the original UK Govt. (then DTI) issued guidebook on business continuity. Nowadays his focus is very much on promoting organizational resilience.