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Government Response to Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Volume 699: debated on Thursday 22 July 2021

[Relevant documents: Oral evidence taken before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 16 June 2020, 23 June 2020, 14 July 2020 and 23 July 2020 on Responding to Covid-19 and the Coronavirus Act 2020, HC377; e-petition 302576, Hold a Public Inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and e-petition 577292, Launch a judge-led public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic.]

I beg to move,

That this House notes the Fifth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HC 541; and calls on the Government to provide an updated response to that set out in the Committee’s Fourth Special Report of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: Government’s response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, HC 995, setting out how the Government intends to implement the Committee’s recommendations, to ensure that the administrative arrangements necessary to set up the public inquiry committed to by the Prime Minister to the House on 11 May 2021, in particular the appointment of an inquiry chair, take place in a timely manner and no later than the end of this year, and to agree: that the Government’s preferred candidate to chair the inquiry should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing by the relevant select committee for the sponsoring Government department.

It is a privilege to move the motion, in the name of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, into the very important subject of the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic and the promised public inquiry.

We, as a Committee, have taken evidence from some very well informed help, if I may put it that way, and we have brought our deliberations forward in the reports under discussion today. We thank our witnesses who gave evidence—Emma Norris from the Institute for Government, Dr Alastair Stark from the University of Queensland, Jason Beer, QC, Lord Butler of Brockwell, Sir Robert Francis, QC, Dame Una O’Brien and Baroness Prashar of Runnymede—and all those who submitted written evidence to the inquiry. I also thank fellow Committee members for their well-informed deliberation on these matters.

We are all used now, I think, to public inquiries as a routine part of the UK political landscape, and it is clear that the issues with which we have been grappling over the past 18 months, and the very difficult measures that the Government have taken to combat the pandemic, are very much the right subject for a public inquiry. However, although we are used to public inquiries, there is very little guidance about how public inquiries should be established, Chairs appointed and terms of reference agreed, so, in the absence of such guidance, our Committee has happily stepped into that void with a view to taking discussions forward.

The Prime Minister has committed in principle to establishing a public inquiry, and in May 2021 he suggested that it should be established in spring 2022. The first message that the Committee would like to give is that that timetable really ought to be brought forward, for the simple reason that it takes a number of months before an inquiry can get under way in terms of establishing its secretariat and so on. I guess one issue that we were keen to grapple with is that the farther away from events an inquiry is established, the less we can learn in a timely fashion. So we would strongly encourage the Government to think about how they can be setting up that inquiry from now. It really should not get in the way of the fight against the pandemic, especially given where we are with regard to vaccination.

Obviously, we need to be very sure about the purpose of the inquiry. As a Committee, we were very keen to ensure that the inquiry should be about learning lessons, not apportioning blame. The facts of the matter are that the Government, and all our public services, were dealing with unprecedented challenges, and there can be no right or wrong answers when the evidence on which you seek to make decisions is changing before your very eyes from day to day. Ultimately, it will come down to a matter of judgment exercised at the time.

I really hope that we can enter the inquiry very much in that spirit, because although I have not agreed with every aspect of the Government’s decision making on this matter, I absolutely recognise that everyone involved in that process was doing so honourably, with the best of intentions. We are not going to be honest about lessons learned unless we can approach the inquiry on that basis. We in this place need to give some very clear messages that we are doing so in the spirit of learning.

I commend the Committee for its thoughtful and thorough report.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Lady just said about one of the recommendations, and I understand about learning lessons; that is often what Committees do. I would challenge any Member, particularly Members who have been in this House for a long time, to remember the lessons learned and recommendations from the mad cow disease inquiry; my guess is that nobody will.

We already know that there have been heroes and villains over the last 18 months, and I would hope that any inquiry would identify those heroes and villains. Mistakes have been made in some cases because mistakes were bound to be made, but some mistakes have been made wilfully and we need to know who was responsible for them.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Clearly, where there is wilful bad behaviour it should be exposed, but we need to set the tone: this inquiry is about how the Government and society have dealt with a very difficult set of issues. The heroes and villains to whom he refers will find a way of being outed, if I can put it in such a way, without it being the entire focus or ethos of the inquiry.

We obviously need to be very clear about the inquiry’s terms of reference, to inform what the focus will be, and about how the various themes that could be looked at will be examined. The chair will obviously be a very important appointment. This is by tradition the choice of the relevant Minister, but, again, respect for and the authority of the inquiry will be very much set by who the chair is. The Committee was very attracted to the idea of a chairman and panel approach, recognising that some of the issues that will be considered by the inquiry are broad ranging so it would be right for the chairman to have access to appropriate expertise in various areas. The Committee also felt that the appointment should be subject to a pre-commencement hearing with the relevant Select Committee, given the very high level of parliamentary interest in this inquiry. That would be an unprecedented step, but, again, in terms of setting the tone of how the inquiry will be progressed, it could be a very important innovation, and I hope the Government will consider that.

One of the issues that needs to be considered by the inquiry is of course the response by the Department of Health and Social Care in terms of management of risk of transmission and so on, but we need to consider in the round the tools adopted by the Government to deal with that, including the impact on liberties and the impact on our economy. There will be obvious consequences in the longer term for the nation’s wellbeing in the round. We also need to consider the wider behaviour of public services in that regard.

There also needs to be a way of considering the impacts in the devolved nations, including whether this should be a UK-wide inquiry or there should be separate inquiries; quite possibly there should be a combination of both.

Will the Committee also be considering whether the ministerial code has been broken, either by deliberately misleading the House or other actions?

I would clearly expect any inquiry to consider such matters, but there are other ways of bringing complaints forward about breaches of the ministerial code, and any action taken on that is of course a matter for the Prime Minister.

As I have mentioned, in taking forward the public inquiry we must work on the basis that everyone did their best, making decisions based on information known at the time. I would expect an inquiry to consider whether the impacts of policy interventions on individual liberties were proportionate and whether they were effective. We need an examination of the tools employed and whether they were effective in delivering the outcome intended. For example, we had a whole programme of local lockdowns, as you will be well aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, but was it a legitimate tool to close down legitimate business activity when the areas of mass infection had high housing density and multigenerational households, and was that the right tool? Again, we need to consider that to ensure that the Government properly assessed the balance between economic harm, liberty and health.

I imagine that any inquiry will find that the development and deployment of vaccines has been an unqualified triumph. In terms of lessons learned, we need to learn from the good things as well as from things that did not go quite as well as they should have. We need a proper examination of how test, track and trace took so long to get off the ground, because that really was not an unqualified success, and we need to consider whether the balance was right between the centre and local government. We also need to consider the issues around the supply of personal protective equipment. Having reacted to the suggestion that there were huge shortages, the fact of the matter is that we now have massive stockpiles and there are considerable costs to the taxpayer of maintaining those stockpiles. Again, we need to properly consider how those decisions came to be made.

I invite the House and the Government to consider the reflections of Bishop James Jones following his distinguished chairmanship of the Hillsborough inquiry. He talked about:

“The patronising disposition of unaccountable power”.

I think that phrase is a very convenient way of expressing how institutions of the state can often operate to protect their own reputations at the expense of the public, whom they are meant to serve. This is a really important principle to consider, given that the inquiry will judge not just lives lost, but the impact on business and jobs, as well as the wider impact on health and the harm that has been caused by the decisions taken over the last year, even though they were perhaps the best decisions that could have been made. It is a behaviour that public institutions can fall into unless we in Parliament give them proper challenge.

Perhaps another of the lessons we need to learn about the last year is that quite often Parliament has not played its full role in scrutinising decisions made by the Government. We have often been asked to give retrospective authority to decisions, and I hope that we all share the view that parliamentary scrutiny actually makes for better decision making.

I will leave hon. Members with a final thought. Our liberties are not in the gift of Government—they are ours. It really is down to consent given by Parliament on behalf of the public to ensure that those liberties, when we do surrender them, as we have in the last year, are not taken for granted by Government. In that regard, considering the behaviour of all our state institutions over this year is a very important job of scrutiny that the new inquiry would have to do to make sure that the shift towards state power that we have witnessed over the last year is not one that becomes permanent.

I want to focus my comments on page 1 of the report—in particular, the fact that the Government accept that there will be an opportunity to look back at some undefined “appropriate time” in the future. I raise the concern that at some “appropriate time” in the future does not deal with the problems that we know exist already today. That underscores the necessity of building public confidence in the decisions that we make in this place by holding an inquiry as quickly as possible. We already know from comments today that public confidence is waning and app usage has dropped off, and other compliance concerns have been raised. At no time is that more important than in the grip of a public emergency such as the pandemic.

The Government have repeatedly called for the House to get behind their plans. However, the message that they give has been mixed and the information that has been requested to enable Members like me to get behind those plans has often not been forthcoming. Observant Members will have noted that my efforts to seek transparency in respect of the surveillance and testing of covid have largely fallen on deaf ears. In July 2020, at nadir regarding the number of cases following the first wave, I first raised my concerns with the chief medical officer. More recently, I raised concerns about the sensitivity of Innova lateral flow devices to the delta variant—on 29 June and again on 6 July in a follow-up email. On each occasion that I raised my concerns with the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), I was advised that information would be forthcoming, but I have still not received those data.

So concerned was I that I wrote a piece, published in The Scotsman yesterday, that raised the concerns on which I have not been able to get answers from the Government. Last night, The Scotsman took down that article after legal representatives of Innova intervened with quite wrong accusations that I was comparing lateral flow devices to PCR tests. I made no such assertion or comparison. Innova questioned the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision, which I will not go into, given the time I have, but which is pretty well set out in various articles, including in The BMJ.

That there was such action—when I cannot get an answer from the Government, when I have raised my concerns in this House, and when I have written a piece for a reputable newspaper and the contractors the Government are working with seek to shut the conversation down—is an unacceptable position for any democracy to find itself in. I feel I am being prevented from carrying out my role and that the Government are preventing me from properly scrutinising their actions. We need urgent action to change that.

May I be one of the many to congratulate you, Madam Deputy Speaker, on being pinged into your position at such short notice?

Let me pick up on the remarks of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) about his being unable to do his job. Collectively, Parliament is doing a great deal of scrutiny of the whole covid pandemic.

I agree that scrutiny must be done, but if I cannot get a sensible answer from a Minister at the Dispatch Box, am given glib replies and am not provided with the information that I have rightly requested, that makes scrutiny almost impossible.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but I have recently served on the Public Accounts Committee, I am Chairman of the Liaison Committee and I have served as Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and I see the Science and Technology Committee, the Health and Social Care Committee and other Committees of this House doing a great deal of really drilling-down scrutiny, so it is not as though no scrutiny is taking place.

I suspect that during this debate we will hear a mixture of the Opposition claiming it is an outrage that there is not an instant, fully comprehensive public inquiry lining people up against the wall to be shot and the Government saying there is not possibly any time for any of this. I have some sympathy for the Government’s position. A senior permanent secretary told me that Secretaries of State regularly complain, “Where is my permanent secretary?”, and it turns out they are preparing to go before another Select Committee. So much scrutiny is going on that is already almost impeding the Government in what they have to do.

We have to remind ourselves that a public inquiry is only a means to an end. The overriding aim of any public inquiry—this is a case in point—is that it should be part of a process that will restore justified public confidence in our system of government, which would satisfy the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. We must therefore prioritise: it is going to be an enormous undertaking. A lot of it should be set aside for the future and we should concentrate on what is most urgent.

What lessons need to be learned now to prepare better for the next pandemic, which could be imminent? Why was our response so slow to build? Why, like so many Governments around the world, did we continue to pretend that there was not going to be an impending emergency? That happened not just in this country but everywhere. What planning had been done and why did it prove so ineffective? What new, permanent machinery of government and capability does there need to be to address the failings so that early indications of a pandemic threat lead to timely and effective action? What parliamentary Committee should oversee all this and hold the Government accountable?

The role of Parliament is to stop the Government fudging the terms of reference, to guarantee the independence of the chair and to prevent the Government from kicking all the difficult issues far into the future. Under my chairmanship, we looked at the Chilcot inquiry. So often, inquiries are actually a means of delaying scrutiny and delaying a reckoning on the issues, as opposed to learning the lessons.

I just add that the public would expect wilful wrongdoing to be punished—backward accountability, I call that—but not an inquiry to apportion blame, least of all for party political reasons. What the public want is honest and open truth about what has happened, which will not happen if witnesses are seeking to avoid blame, so I fully support what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said about making sure that the inquiry is not about apportioning blame.

The purpose of an inquiry like this is to establish truth so that we can hold those in power accountable for what they will do in future to make sure things are better planned and turn out better. That is what I call forward accountability, and I think that is what Select Committee scrutiny in this House should be about.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for introducing this debate this afternoon. She has very well summarised the report by the Committee, and I completely agree with everything that she says. I just take the opportunity, if I may, to thank the Clerks, the Committee staff and the witnesses who attended the Committee for their help in putting this report together.

The Government are right to commit to a public inquiry, and the report that the Committee produced is wide-ranging. I will limit my remarks to the scope of the inquiry, the power of the inquiry and the establishment of a secretariat. Coronavirus has been very broad; it has affected every aspect of our lives, so careful thought needs to be given to what an inquiry should cover. The Committee’s report has recommended, as my hon. Friend identified, a focus on learning lessons as the primary purpose, rather than apportioning blame. I was struck by Lord Butler’s evidence to the Committee. He referred back to the Scott inquiry and said that the terms of reference had been extended so far that it took three years to complete the report, which was far longer than necessary to determine the original question.

As a Committee, we also considered what powers the inquiry should have. The report recommends that it should be a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. The Committee heard arguments for and against a statutory inquiry. Sir Robert Francis, who chaired the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, said he valued the non-statutory basis of the inquiry, because it allowed him to speak to people privately. We heard also from Dame Una O’Brien, who is the former permanent secretary at the Department of Health and was secretary to the Bristol inquiry. She said that the full statutory powers will ensure that all material is handed over, especially WhatsApp messages and texts outside the departmental system. As recent events have shown, that will certainly need to be the case with any coronavirus inquiry. It makes the case for a statutory inquiry very strong.

I was surprised to hear that there is no standing secretariat for public inquiries. They are established from scratch. Sir Robert Francis told us how it had taken six to nine months from his appointment to the start of the inquiry to get going. He started with a blank piece of paper, and there was even a four-month process to go through tendering to appoint a firm of solicitors to the inquiry. There is a strong argument for putting together an inquiry sooner rather than later, to allow that important preparatory work to be undertaken.

I have seen the Government’s response to the report. I see that in many respects the Government notes the recommendations. I have seen, however, that sadly they have not accepted recommendation 5, on the timing of setting up the inquiry. While that is unfortunate, I look forward to seeing the Government’s plans for the inquiry develop so that in time the Government, the national health service and society as a whole can learn the lessons from this terrible period.

The covid-19 outbreak has been one of the most significant and consequential periods of our lifetimes. It has led to a tragic loss of life in this country and around the world. We salute the fortitude and courage of the British people and the bravery of our NHS and key workers, which means that we have now passed the peak of deaths and hospitalisations.

I am very pleased that this inquiry will have full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 and will have the ability to compel the production of relevant material and to take oral evidence in public under oath. I support this approach, rather than having a non-statutory inquiry, as it allows statutory safeguards to be put in place and ensures that it is carried out to the highest standard.

I must emphasise, however, that the pandemic is not over. The threat of new, more transmissible covid variants remains, as is only too clear to us all, and the Prime Minister has warned of a likely surge in cases this winter. That is why the right time for an inquiry is spring next year. I understand calls for an inquiry to be held sooner, but this timetable will avoid inadvertently distracting those whom we continue to need this year in the fight against the virus. Furthermore, lessons are being learned all the time by the Government and health authorities during the pandemic, and measures are being implemented accordingly. So we are dealing with an organic, rather than static, response to the crisis.

I fully support the approach of the Committee’s report, which makes it clear that resorting to blaming individuals is not conducive and we should be looking to learn lessons to guide our response to future pandemics and to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. As other speakers have said this afternoon, this inquiry should be forward looking in its approach. It is, of course, vital to ensure the impartiality of the chair and that the inquiry will have the widest possible consultation and engagement. Having the highest levels of confidentiality is also of particular importance, particularly when we are looking at the personal experiences of people who have suffered as a result of covid-19.

As a Welsh MP, I am particularly interested in how the inquiry interacts with the devolved Administrations, which was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). We need to ensure that the inquiry can take into account the full scope of the UK response to the pandemic, in my constituency, in the rest of Wales and in the rest of the UK. The report recommends that each of the devolved nations must

“establish its own inquiry. This is because most aspects of the response to the pandemic are devolved matters but doing such also ensures proper attention is granted to each of the nations’ response”.

The problem is that so far the Welsh Government have refused to hold their own inquiry. If the UK Government are prepared to incorporate a thorough assessment of the handling of the pandemic by the Welsh Government and by the other devolved Administrations in their inquiry, as part of a truly UK-wide approach, that would have my support, not least because it would be a welcome recognition of the vital importance of the Union of the UK in fighting covid, particularly in the development and roll-out of the very successful vaccination programme. But this approach must not inadvertently result in the Welsh Government and the other devolved Administrations being less rigorously assessed in the inquiry. With power comes responsibility for all Governments to account fully for their actions in an open and transparent way.

I would like to start by reading out a testament from Jane Roche from Castle Vale in my constituency. She lost her father and sister to coronavirus last year. She says:

“Losing my amazing Dad, Vincent Pettitt, and my amazing Sister Jocelyn Pettitt just 5 days apart has been the hardest thing to deal with in my life so far, and I am still grieving and will always grieve for them as they didn’t die in a natural dignified way with their family around them, telling them how much we loved them. We were such a close family.

My Dad was such a lovely man, no fool and strong in every way, I always felt loved and protected by him, he was so funny and had a very dry sense of humour, always making people laugh, his will to live was amazing, he fought other illnesses but always fought on.

My Sister was beautiful inside and out, very kind and loving, a wonderful Mother and Grandmother and her 3rd Grandchild was due to be born a month after she died so she never got to meet him and she was really looking forward to it. I feel robbed of Dad and my Sister as they were snatched away by Covid-19.”

She goes on:

“Only someone who has lost their loved one to Covid would understand how I feel, and unfortunately there are thousands of us. I feel heartbroken and I always will, I feel anxious most days and cry most days, and I miss them so very much…I need the Public Inquiry to happen this year, dragging it out until next year only makes me angry and the grief is made worse by thinking that nobody cares about all the people that have died from Covid…This has changed my life forever, I always feel like something bad is going to happen as I would never have expected this double tragedy last April. I will never get over this.”

The voice of the relatives; the voice of loss; the voice of pain—a voice that should be listened to.

I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed to this debate from across the House of Commons and those who participated in the work of the Committee, leading to the recommendations before us. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), who chairs the Committee; the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who gave a comprehensive report today; and Members, including the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), who have made contributions on the importance of learning lessons now if we are to avoid mistakes in the future.

The Committee’s report calls for a public inquiry into the Government’s response to covid-19 to begin immediately. We owe it to the families that this happens. The covid-19 public inquiry should be a landmark event in our nation’s history.

I thoroughly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, which underline the importance of giving settlement to the aggrieved and bereaved. That is an important role for a public inquiry. Does he also agree that the vast task that the public inquiry will represent means that it needs to be segmented, and that there are urgent bits that need to be done now and other bits that could be done later? Will he join me, and perhaps work with some Select Committees, to come up with some terms of reference for which parts of the inquiry should start now and would not disrupt what the Government need to carry on doing at this very pressured time, but would enable us to start the learning process on the urgent matters?

The hon. Member makes a good point that a sensible debate can and should take place on how the inquiry can commence immediately and then be conducted in stages. Surely the first priority is learning lessons from what has gone wrong in order to avoid that in the future and to avoid us seeing yet more people die needlessly. That approach is sensible. Exactly how the public inquiry is conducted should form part of the debate.

Over the past year, the country has experienced tragedy and human suffering on a scale not seen since the second world war. No one could have imagined that 130,000 lives would be lost to this terrible virus, which has turned whole lives upside down as family and friends mourn the loss of loved ones. That is why this debate matters and why a public inquiry is so important. All Members across the House will have heard heartbreaking stories from their constituents over the past 18 months, like from Jane, who quite simply says, “I want to know why my dad and sister died. What were the mistakes that were made?”. She always asks, “How can we ensure that no one else in future suffers the loss that I have suffered?”. It is therefore vital that the covid-19 public inquiry has the confidence of the bereaved families, such as Jane.

The Committee’s report is a vital contribution to ensuring that the Government get the process right. In the time since the report was published, the Government have announced that a public inquiry will take place. However, that should not be a reason to be relaxed, because I am afraid that the Government’s approach to the inquiry thus far falls far short of what the Committee recommends should be expected. As a consequence, the Government risk the trust and confidence of the bereaved families if they do not place them at the heart of the process going forward, about which I will say more later.

I wish to focus on three key areas highlighted by the report in which, frankly, the Government’s approach is lacking: first, the timetable for the inquiry to begin; secondly, the selection of the chair and the terms of reference; and thirdly, the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations. On the first point, the Government have set a timetable for the inquiry to commence in the spring of next year. That is simply too far away. Everyone understands the challenges that the country had to face during the first wave, but the Government’s failure to learn the lessons of the first wave has already left us with an even more tragic second wave during last winter, with too many lost lives and our stretched economy under even more strain. Then, this spring, we have had the debacle of the borders policy, with the delta variant sweeping through the country and a third wave developing and cases now rocketing.

It is therefore critical that we learn the lessons that need to be learned now. The Government cannot kick the can down the road to next spring. I stress again that we need to go forward to the next stages. We know that the Government have conducted internal lessons learned reviews. What are these reviews? Why will they not publish them? What is there to hide? The Committee recommends that such in-house assessments by Government Departments should be handed to the relevant Select Committees and the summaries also made public, and that has got to be right. Surely, on a matter so important to the future preparedness of the nation to rise to the challenge of coronavirus, the Government should publish these reviews now.

I now turn to the selection of the chair and the terms of reference of the inquiry. Paragraph 24 of the Committee’s report is clear that the setting up of the inquiry’s secretariat and administrative functions must begin “immediately” as

“delaying the set-up will inevitably delay the inquiry’s ability to start work in earnest”.

The Committee is absolutely right. I completely agree, and we have been clear, that the work must commence now and that it must be transparent and in consultation with the bereaved families. Just how long do the Government expect the families to wait for this process to begin? Other family members have said to me, “Jack, justice delayed is justice denied. We, the bereaved families, deserve better than this.”

I understand why the Government do not wish to redirect officials and frontline staff on a wholesale basis from the work of combating the pandemic, but surely the consultation with the bereaved families and other stakeholders on the selection of the inquiry chair, its secretariat and terms of reference can and should begin now. The Committee highlights that consultation with the bereaved families could make a “significant contribution” to the inquiry. I absolutely agree. The House will therefore want to hear from the Minister how much progress has been made on consulting the bereaved families on these matters.

Yesterday, dozens of members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign came to London. It was heartbreaking to walk down row upon row of photographs of loved ones who had died. They wanted to bring home the impact on them, the relatives and the bereaved, but they also wanted to know, in telling their often heartbreaking stories, why no one was talking to them. One mother whose grandmother had died said, “Why is it that they are not talking to us?” She wanted to know why the Government had not contacted relatives’ organisations, particularly the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign, to start to engage in a dialogue going forward at the next stages. It is inexplicable and absolutely unacceptable.

I share the concern of the relatives over the foot-dragging by Ministers who have avoided repeated requests to meet the bereaved families and hear their concerns. I can give an example that I have been engaged in personally. Before resigning, the former Health Secretary was good enough to agree at the Dispatch Box last December to meet families from Birmingham, yet not once did he or his office contact them or me to make the arrangements, despite numerous phone calls and emails from us. Not once. He had lifted the expectations of dozens of relatives that they would at last be involved in dialogue and consultation, but the door was shut in their face. I hope the Minister can now give a clear assurance that the bereaved families will be consulted on the chair and the terms of reference.

Finally, there is the question of implementing the inquiry’s recommendations. The hon. Member for Thurrock, in a powerful contribution, mentioned Bishop Jones, the Hillsborough inquiry and the mistakes that were made before fully exposing the truth of what happened. That point was well made. We cannot let this be a public inquiry whose recommendations are quietly shelved or swept under the carpet. The national trauma that the country has endured over the past year demands more. Despite the crisis last year, this country has achieved great things, but a decade of austerity weakened the foundations of our country and undermined our national defences against the pandemic.

We cannot simply go back to business as usual when the pandemic subsides. Lessons must be learned. The Government should therefore make a clear commitment both to set up the inquiry and to engage with it. It is only by beginning the inquiry that we can learn those serious lessons to avoid future tragedies. Without that, we cannot build a better future for our country, built on the strength and resilience we tapped into to get through the hardest of times. Only then can we be ready for whatever challenges come next.

In closing, I refer once again to those who should be at the heart of the covid-19 public inquiry: those who died and their families. On both sides of the House, right hon. and hon. Members have been meeting bereaved families over the past year. Those meetings have been some of the most difficult and emotional I have ever been involved in. The families simply want to know why their loved ones died, when many of them should not have. They want the right lessons to be learned so that no one else has to suffer the loss they have suffered. That is a noble aim, and it is one that the Government must rise to in setting up the public inquiry. We owe nothing less to the bereaved families.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and congratulations.

I have answered many debates on the pandemic from this Dispatch Box, and it has always been right to start by thinking of all those who have lost so much and who have been through such pain and distress in this cruel pandemic, which has even denied people the ability to grieve properly. Inquiries have many purposes, as the chairman of the Hillsborough inquiry ably stated. They are a stepping-stone to closure for families, although the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is right to say that they bring no comfort for their loss.

It is incredibly important that we place those individuals and others, such as NHS and care staff who have given so much during this crisis, at the heart of the inquiry. Having had the privilege of being the sponsoring Minister for the infected blood inquiry since February 2020, I know how it can be done well. I have just announced the compensation study, which will involve a consultation on the terms of reference for that study with those affected by infected blood. That is how we do things, and I would give people comfort by saying, “Look at how we do these very sensitive inquiries. Look at how we can do them really well.” We want to do the covid-19 inquiry really well, and we will place those affected at its heart.

I want to answer the many points that have been raised by hon. Members and put on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for this debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have made contributions, and I thank the Chair, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), and the Committee for their work. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) for opening the debate.

Clearly, the Government agree with the Committee that there needs to be a statutory inquiry, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that in a statement to the House on 12 May. The public inquiry will be established on a statutory basis with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005.

Several Members have raised the timing of the inquiry, and I agree with many of the comments that have been made. We want to do this as swiftly as possible, but not to the detriment of the pandemic response. Several Members have recognised that this would place a significant burden on the whole of Government, our scientific advisers, our NHS and many others.

Although we want to start the inquiry in the spring—on the timetable, given what I have said about the work that needs to be done to set the inquiry up, I hope that I will be able to give hon. Members some comfort that that will start very shortly—of course we do not want to wait for that before commencing other work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), the Chair of the Liaison Committee, has suggested, we need to learn lessons now to enable us to continually improve our response, not just to this crisis but to other threats that may be out there. And we have continually learned—not just in Government, but ably supported by the excellent work of this House and its Committees, as well as the National Audit Office and many others.

We are already taking important steps to improve our resilience, which is why last week we launched the call for evidence to inform the development of a new resilience strategy. That call for evidence starts a proper national debate about what effective resilience should mean for us all, and will allow us to move towards a whole of society approach to resilience and build resilience into our everyday lives.

I am fully aware that the Government are learning lessons as quickly as possible, but they are underpowering their ability to strengthen public confidence. This just looks too much like the ordinary activity of Government. For example, if the call for evidence was going to be independently assessed—not by a statutory inquiry but at least by an independent chair, supported by a panel of independent people—and a report more independent than just a Government White Paper was going to be compiled, and if the panel was going to be able to take evidence from victims and others who have participated in the crisis, not necessarily Ministers and Government scientists, would that not strengthen public confidence that there was an element of independence injected into the process and that things were being done that they were not aware of?

I agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend says. Leaving the inquiry to one side for the moment, the call for evidence and, indeed, all the work that we have done improving not just our risk register but our risk assessment tools, because we recognise that we need to reform the methodology that sits behind it, are with external partners. For example, on the risk assessment, we are using various external stakeholders—with engineering skills, for example—to kick the tyres on our methodology, and it will be much more open and consultative than any previous process.

I will move on to how the inquiry could be established. Many Members have commented on having a panel. Clearly, some inquiries have taken that model. That is a very good point, and it is one that I know my colleagues are listening to. We have not rested on those findings; we have established many things to improve our response. I will go into this in slightly more detail, as many Members have raised these points. We have established a joint organisational learning system, jointly managed by the emergency services interoperability principles team and the civil contingencies secretariat. We established the UK Health Security Agency in April this year. We have a new situations centre. We have the Boardman reports, the first of which set out 28 recommendations that the Department is committed to implementing in full. The second report, which is a wider review, has identified a further 28 recommendations for improvements to procurement in Government. We are also steadfast in our commitment to intensify international co-operation. We want to reflect on the central role that the World Health Organisation has played over the course of the pandemic in achieving resilient healthcare systems.

We are seeking to implement improvements to systems and processes so that we are better prepared for any future crisis, whether it is a health issue or any other. Those improvements need to be embedded into the development of new capabilities such as the situations centre or the launch of the catastrophic emergency planning programme. With regard to those on the frontline, particularly local resilience forums, a huge amount of learning has gone on. We are currently funding a pilot to build capacity in local resilience forums. They are on the frontline. They should be in the driving seat for local decisions, and we want to build their capacity in that respect.

I very much welcome the Committee’s conclusions, and also the views of other Members of the House who have said that the inquiry should be forward-looking and primarily focused on improving our policy. I know that many are in agreement on that.

With regard to the chair of the inquiry, the Committee recommended, as we have heard, that the Government give proper consideration to a non-judicial chair. There are many ways that that could be set up. There could be a panel to sit alongside the chair. What is critical is that there is a genuine breadth of experience. While not wanting to slow the inquiry down, we really do need it to be led and supported by people who have that expertise.

The Government are extremely grateful to the Committee and this House for their thoughtful considerations on these issues. I hope that some of what I have said may provide reassurance to all those who have been affected by these terrible events. Retaining their confidence, and the confidence of all who have been involved in this crisis, is vital if we are going to get a good result in this inquiry. I want to assure Members that we will also be working with the devolved Administrations in this regard.

I welcome the Minister’s comments about the importance of engagement with the families. Will she agree to meet the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign?

I would be happy to meet anyone who has been affected. I am not the sponsoring Minister for this inquiry. However, I have always found in my engagements with victims in inquiries where I am the sponsoring Minister that they are incredibly helpful in making sure that we are doing the right thing. I may not be the Minister whom it would be most beneficial for that campaign to meet, but the hon. Gentleman certainly has my assurances and my commitment to ensure that the inquiry is the best it can be.

At the moment the Prime Minister is the sponsoring Minister. Clearly, he will want to delegate some functions to other Ministers. I tend to do a lot of this work in the Cabinet Office, and I stand ready to play my part, but the Prime Minister himself is taking the lead. I think that is very understandable given the nature of this inquiry. In closing, I wish all colleagues well for the recess.

I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. There is a great degree of consensus: we all want this inquiry to be very much focused on learning lessons. I guess the real issue of contention is timing, more than anything else. That reflects the tension between doing the job properly and thoroughly, and potentially making timely reflections so that we can act quickly. I want to associate myself with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin). We need to focus on the outcome of the inquiry to get it right, and that outcome must be confidence—confidence from the public that we have learned those lessons and confidence across the system that we have taken steps to ensure that we deal with such issues more effectively in future. In that regard, I welcome the tone with which my right hon. Friend the Minister addressed the issues we considered today. I hope that that reflects how the Government take this issue forward.

It will take time for the inquiry to get up and running, so the sooner we can get on with making the appointments and setting the approach the better. It will be some considerable time before the inquiry starts to impact on those parts of the Government that are dealing with the pandemic now. I hope that we will be able to reflect on that again in due course.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes the Fifth Report of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, HC 541; and calls on the Government to provide an updated response to that set out in the Committee’s Fourth Special Report of Session 2019-21, A Public Inquiry into the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic: Government’s response to the Committee’s Fifth Report, HC 995, setting out how the Government intends to implement the Committee’s recommendations, to ensure that the administrative arrangements necessary to set up the public inquiry committed to by the Prime Minister to the House on 11 May 2021, in particular the appointment of an inquiry chair, take place in a timely manner and no later than the end of this year, and to agree: that the Government’s preferred candidate to chair the inquiry should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing by the relevant select committee for the sponsoring Government department.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—