Government Response to Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Jackie Doyle-Price Jackie Doyle-Price Conservative, Thurrock 2:10 pm, 22nd July 2021

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.