In a very difficult week for the prime minister, Boris Johnson made an important announcement that will help decide how history records his premiership. His appointment of Baroness Heather Hallett to chair the Coronavirus Inquiry meets a pledge to bereaved families that he would do so before Christmas. The inquiry was announced in May and is due to begin at some unspecified point in the spring of 2022 – so while the prime minister seems to recognise the unavoidable need for the inquiry, its establishment has been unnecessarily slow.
Baroness Hallett is an excellent choice to lead this investigation. Her management of the 7/7 inquests shows her ability to investigate a complex and sensitive tragedy, and her report demonstrated her ability to explain what happened, and what needs to change, without fear or favour. As a judge, she brings impartially, experience with the procedures that govern inquiries, and an uncommon ability to marshall huge quantities of (often conflicting) evidence. She should enjoy the confidence of both politicians and the public. Although news of the appointment was overshadowed by a record-setting day for covid cases as the Omicron wave takes hold, the important process of documenting what happened and identifying how the government and others can learn and improve can begin.
Setting up any inquiry takes time. There are a series of administrative steps that come before hearings can begin including appointing key members of staff, particularly the secretary and counsel, and conducting background research. With other inquiries this process has taken a month or two. But with Christmas approaching and a surge of coronavirus ongoing the work may take longer. That is all the more reason why the inquiry set-up should have started sooner.
The first and most important decision is to set the scope and terms of reference. This will not be simple. The pandemic has affected so many aspects of life in the UK: healthcare, education, the economy, law and order. There are valid questions about the conduct of ministers, how and why key decisions were made, and who was responsible. The role of parliament deserves examination and the relationship between the government in Westminster and the devolved administrations has rarely been better than ‘strained’ throughout the crisis – something that warrants examination. No one inquiry can investigate every strand, so prioritisation will be key.
Government ministers will ultimately set the terms of the inquiry. But it is critical that in doing so they do not close down areas of investigation or limit their own exposure. For this reason it is essential that Baroness Hallett negotiates and agrees the scope of her work.
Inquiries fulfil a range of objectives. They must establish a truthful and trusted narrative about what happened. They must identify what went wrong and how the government and others need to do things differently as a result. And, more sensitively, an investigation into such a large number of deaths also serves as a locus for individual and collective grief, and the commemoration of victims. The inquiry’s terms of reference will therefore be key in setting the core lines of inquiryand enabling it to fulfil at least some of these objectives.
As chair, Baroness Hallett should shape the terms of reference, and she should consult widely (and rapidly) with the public as she develops the scope of her work. However they are written, this inquiry’s terms should direct Hallett and her team to focus on the core decisions that shaped how the pandemic was managed. They must work out what ministers knew when they made key choices, what evidence they had and whose opinions influenced them. This is the route to learn how the pandemic was managed, what worked and what did not, and how a future crisis can be managed better.
Working out her priorities and remit will also allow Baroness Hallett to decide how to structure the inquiry. It might be that she thinks the key questions can be answered sequentially – following the flow of events from the start of 2020 onwards. But it is more likely that a modular approach would be better, splitting separate issues to be investigated in parallel where possible.
It is not enough for inquiries to tell a story of what happened, they also need to change things so that the same mistakes are not made again. Historically this is the weakest aspect of inquiries despite being the most important. Baroness Hallett should look at the successes and failures of earlier inquiries. As a judge, she might feel constrained in continuing to advocate for her recommendations once the inquiry is complete. Therefore she must find ways to ensure that even after her investigation ends, others carry her work forward. Involving parliament, especially select committees, and setting clear deadlines for the main recommendations to be completed will also help.
The appointment of Baroness Hallett to lead the inquiry into coronavirus was a good decision by the prime minister. He should consolidate it by ensuring that she is fully involved in setting the inquiry terms of reference and that she has the authority to investigate whichever parts of the coronavirus response she deems to be relevant.