Submission of Evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry ‘Public Consultation on Initial Terms of Reference’

International Public Policy Observatory

1. IPPO welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the public consultation on the UK Covid Inquiry’s draft terms of reference (ToR). The IPPO public inquiry team has been working
hard over the last six months to explore ‘what works’ when it comes to successful public inquiries and to synthesise the existing evidence base in the hope of supporting and working closely with the inquiry team.

2. The three ‘take home’ points this submission seeks to emphasise are – (i) a tight single inquiry design and delivery model is almost guaranteed to fail due to the extent and scope of the ‘bandwidth challenge’; (ii) the design process therefore has to consider a network of related sub-inquiries from the inception phase, with an explicit focus on post-inquiry implementation built in from the start; and (iii) the inquiry should mobilise and utilise as many evidence synthesis capabilities as possible from the outset in order to avoid ‘information overload’.

3. We have structured our response around the four main questions set out in the consultation document before making a few preliminary comments about inquiry design. IPPO would be very keen to provide any additional follow-up evidence, data or international insights.

Q1. Do the Inquiry’s draft Terms of Reference cover all the areas that you think should be addressed by the Inquiry?

4. In terms of framing the draft ToR adopt a very clear and explicit emphasis on evidence-based lesson-learning through engagement with a wide variety of affected communities. This positive, empathetic and future-focused orientation is to be welcomed. In terms of potential refinements to the ToR it is possible to raise three issues – efficiency, focus and ambitions.

5. The draft ToR begins with an acknowledgement of the need to ‘minimise duplication of investigation, evidence gathering and reporting with any other public inquiry established by the devolved administrations’. This sentence highlights the existence of a parallel and co-existing public inquiry in Scotland but it might also seek to capture the existence and learning relevance of other Covid-focused national and international inquires beyond the UK. It might also refer to the need to ‘minimise duplication of investigation, evidence gathering and reporting’ vis-à-vis the completed scrutiny activities of select committees in the House of Commons. Between March 2020 and March 2022, for example, 58 Covid-focused reports were published by select committees in the House of Commons. This raises important questions about the cross-utilisation of available evidence and data in order to maximise efficiency.

6. This focus on investigative efficiency is a critical point. There is an issue about the ‘professional bandwidth’ of many of the people that the inquiry will want to engage with. It is crucial to remember that many of the key decision-makers during the height of the Covid pandemic are still working in the NHS and are now trying to deal with the combined pressures of (i) the continuing Covid pressures, (ii) the biggest treatment backlog in post-war history, (iii) a number of complex organisational mergers, (iv) significant budget restrictions plus (v) a major public inquiry which for many health professionals is likely to evoke traumatic memories. Once again, this layering of pressures highlights the need for innovative, creative and empathetic inquiry design thinking.

7. Following on from this focus on ‘professional bandwidth’, one of the main challenges in delivering an effective, efficient and impactful Covid-19 public inquiry is also likely to be the simple breadth of the ‘policy bandwidth’ being covered. Most public inquiries are tasked with investigating fairly specific incidents or defined issues but the draft ToR for the UK Covid inquiry are for obvious and understandable reasons incredibly broad. This is reflected in the seventeen policy areas and topics that are bullet-pointed under part one of the document (mental health and public trust in political decision-making seem significant omissions). Managing this wide ‘bandwidth’ while also engaging with affected communities in a way that understands complex inter-sectionalities and longer-term scarring effects is both a challenge and opportunity that would benefit from some innovative design thinking (discussed below). However, in terms of framing the draft ToR is clearly pushing the inquiry towards an emphasis on public health and the economic response to the pandemic but what is missing is any explicit mention of the machinery of government and political decision-making processes. These are key issues that would include the analysis of multi-level governance structures, inter-governmental relations, and the scientific policy advice systems. A slightly stronger emphasis on these issues might increase the future standing, credibility and capacity of the inquiry.

8. The draft ToR are focused almost exclusively on what the inquiry will do. This is very clear from the opening sentence: ‘The inquiry will examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, up to and including the inquiry’s formal setting-up date’. A more rounded ToR might seek to provide a slightly clearer and longer answer to the ‘why?’ question. What is the inquiry being set up with the hope of achieving? This is currently implicit but might usefully be made explicit as a powerful vision statement around which all the various activities and workstreams of the inquiry can focus. A related issue which is not currently considered in the draft ToR is post-inquiry planning and capacity. As the existing evidence base demonstrates, the most successful inquiries in terms of policy-learning and positive change have generally been able to put in place post-inquiry review or follow-up structures to help ensure that the inquiry has a life beyond the publication of its final report. The final section of the draft ToR might be amended to plant a seed to the effect that ‘[T]he inquiry will…have reasonable regard to post-inquiry implementation and scrutiny structures in order to ensure lesson-learning and enhance future resilience’.

9. The paragraphs in this section have made suggestions for the amendment of the draft ToR for the UK Covid public inquiry with reference to efficiency, focus and ambitions. A counter argument could be made that the ToR concerning statutory public inquiries would not normally include such elements or detail. IPPO’s response to this counter-argument is that the UK-Covid inquiry is not itself a ‘normal’ inquiry due to the sheer scope, scale and salience of the topic being investigated.

Q2. Which issues or topics do you think the Inquiry should look at first?

10. Answering this question depends very much on the design-approach adopted by the committee. Once again, three evidence-based issues or ideas may help develop the discussion – mapping, tracing, networking.

11. One starting point suggestion that dovetails with the point raised above about duplication would be to first look at ‘what evidence has already been collected, what do we know and
where are the gaps?’ This would encourage the UK-Covid inquiry to adopt a knowledge synthesis approach to help guide its initial steps. IPPO could potentially provide research support and assistance in this regard.

12. A second suggestion would be that the inquiry did not start with an initial focus on a theme or topic but adopted a more systematic and chronological process-tracing or life course
approach. This would allow the ‘factual narrative account’ to emerge while at the same time highlighting how certain issues emerged onto (and often fell out of) the issue-attention cycle at various points in the pandemic response process. Such a mapping exercise would also facilitate the visualisation of timelines and the identification of asymmetric response processes within the UK. The sharing of experiences could then be structured around key points and decisions in the process, thereby giving structure to community and public engagement. The chronological process-tracing would not start in January 2020 but would begin with the analysis of pre-Covid pandemic preparedness exercises.

13. The question about ‘Which issues or topics do you think the Inquiry should look at first?’ might also be challenged at a more fundamental and basic level – why should any issue or
specific topic necessarily be looked at first? The point we seek to make here relates to the benefits of design-led and network-based thinking as a way of addressing the challenge
(and opportunity) of ‘policy bandwidth’ that has already been mentioned (above). An innovative inquiry design model that sought to achieve a credible sense of both breadth
and depth over a very wide and complex policy terrain might adopt a federated approach whereby a number of sub-inquiries are effectively tasked to investigate specific topics
under a common framework and approach. This would allow a number of issues or topics to be explored through parallel processes with measures put in place to ensure consistency
across the sub-inquiries. The benefit being that this would also allow the UK inquiry to expand and reduce capacity as necessary at different points in the process. It is also possible
that sub-inquiry processes might form valuable tools for inter-inquiry data-sharing and lesson-learning.

Q3. Do you think the Inquiry should set a planned end-date for its public hearings, so as to help ensure timely findings and recommendations?

14. No. Successful inquires around the world have generally utilised public hearings throughout the whole inquiry process rather than necessarily restricting them to any specific stage or timescale. Public hearings can even be incredibly useful for curating a conversation around a draft final report, and also for retaining policy learning momentum post-inquiry.

15. A useful way of possibly rephrasing the question is to think about what role public hearings might play at various points in the inquiry process. Following on from this, a key question
for the inquiry team to be thinking about in its formative stage is ‘how do we engage with multiple publics in multiple ways?’ This is a critical point. As other public inquiries have discovered, engaging with the public is often more problematic, resource-intensive and challenging than commonly understood. Various organisations and campaign groups will claim to speak for ‘their’ communities but the role of ‘gatekeepers’ must be viewed with caution and alongside a commitment to engage with community members directly. There is a related issue of scale that also needs to be acknowledged – the affected Covid community in the UK is essentially everyone. Even those people who may not have been ill or lost loved ones will have been affected in some way, and many of the longer-term social and economic scarring-effects are not even visible or known yet.

16. Public hearings and public engagement more broadly will have to form a key element of the UK Covid inquiry. IPPO was therefore very pleased to see such a strong commitment to hearing about people’s experiences of the pandemic, both in hearings and outside the formal structures of the inquiry. The slight note of caution we would seek to make at this early stage in the inquiry’s formation is that there must also be some acknowledgement of the need to manage the public’s expectations about what the inquiry can realistically deliver for those who engage with it.

Q4. How should the Inquiry be designed and run to ensure that bereaved people or those who have suffered harm or hardship as a result of the pandemic have their voices heard?

17. IPPO firmly believes that the UK-Covid inquiry should be designed around an innovative ‘whole of society’ approach. The standard statutory inquiry model is unlikely to realise the promise and potential of the endeavour that Baroness Hallett has been asked to chair. IPPO has written a number of research-based publications on the need to adopt an innovative-design approach. It has also held seminars, roundtables and conferences with individuals who have commissioned, chaired or supported public inquires in order to glean tacit knowledge and understand ‘what works’. In this regard there is much to be learned from overseas experience and also much to be gained from thinking about maximising the discretion and flexibility which is to be found with the current statutory inquiry model in the UK.

18. One element of this ‘whole of society’ approach might be a willingness to draw on additional sources of support that could be commissioned-by, but undertaken beyond, the formal inquiry secretariat. This might include collecting testimonies, synthesising evidence, running deliberative events, producing non text-based outputs, facilitating new ‘docking points’ into the inquiry, data management, etc. In short, ensuring that bereaved people or those who have suffered harm or hardship as a result of the pandemic have their voices heard will demand a combination of ‘innovative inquiry design’ and ‘innovative inquiry processes and practices’. The former relating to initial design decisions, and the latter to elements of ongoing process. What this really points to in terms of the design and delivery of the inquiry is the need to consider creating of a panel of experts to support the chair, increase capacity and ensure a multiplicity of expertise and perspectives.

19. Three other issues warrant serious consideration. First and foremost, how will the inquiry be designed and delivered in order to achieve a proportionate balance between (backward-looking) blame-attribution and more (forward-focused) lesson-learning? The significance of this question has been underlined in a number of IPPO outputs and also in great length by a recent report by Christoph Meyer and his colleagues at King’s College, London. [Learning the Right Lessons for the Next Pandemic] The second issue relates to the protection of witnesses, especially those serving public officials who may want to speak with candour but fear of how this might affect their subsequent career options. Fear of sanction is a well-known inhibitor of lesson-learning. Finally, irrespective of the formal ToR the UK Covid inquiry will possess a significance and symbolism that extends way beyond its formal core tasks. How might the inquiry process itself possess some longer and broader societal significance in terms of memorialisation and sense-making?

20. The three ‘take home’ points this submission has attempted to underline can be very clearly stated as – (i) a tight single inquiry design and delivery model is almost guaranteed to fail due to the extent and scope of the ‘bandwidth challenge’; (ii) the design process therefore has to consider a network of related sub-inquiries from the inception phase, with an explicit focus on post-inquiry implementation built in from the start; and (iii) the inquiry should mobilise and utilise as many evidence synthesis capabilities as possible from the outset in order to avoid ‘information overload’.

21. If IPPO can provide further support to the UK Covid Inquiry then please do not hesitate to contact either Prof. Matthew Flinders (m.flinders@sheffield.ac.uk) or Prof. Geoff
Mulgan (g.mulgan@ucl.ac.uk ).

April 2022