The £100 million question: Is the covid inquiry just expensive theatre?

by Elliot Keck, head of campaigns

It’s safe to say that the covid inquiry this week has been more heat than light. It’s been entertaining for sure, and more expletive-laden than an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. But what have we really learnt?


It’s difficult to argue with Carl Heneghan’s analysis in The Spectator, in which he calls the inquiry “a farce – a spectacle of hysteria, name-calling and trivialities.” As he goes on, “the stakes could hardly be higher. Lockdown was the most disruptive policy in British peacetime history.


Rather than trying to learn the lessons of the pandemic - did lockdowns work and were they worth it - it’s been a theatre for the absurd and the salacious. And for what is currently amounting to little more than a mid-tier episode of The Thick of It, taxpayers are going to have to cough up an estimated £100 million. They already spend £159 per person on the licence fee to pay for BBC programming. They don’t need another comedy drama. They need answers.


This isn’t the first time taxpayers have had to pay an arm and a leg for a public inquiry. Between April 2015 and June 2020 TaxPayers’ Alliance research revealed that over £300 million had been spent on these exercises, often designed as a way for politicians to avoid tricky issues, rather than to properly scrutinise major events. 


They’ve become more common, as well. Whenever there’s any sort of high-level cock-up, it seems that these days the thing to do is to set up an inquiry, and kick the real scrutiny into the long grass. After all, one mustn’t preempt the findings of an inquiry! We must wait for the inquiry to report in order to learn the lessons (no matter how obvious those lessons are to anyone who switches on the news or picks up a newspaper)! While these circuses drag on, taxpayers’ have to foot the bill.  


It didn’t need to be this way. Other countries started their covid inquiries earlier than the UK; some have already finished theirs, such as Sweden. Unfortunately the history of public inquiries in the UK is that, while often thorough, they are typically slow moving and take many years to complete. This one looks like it could drag on to 2026 and beyond


And it’s not clear at all that cost, duration, and quality are correlated when it comes to public inquiries. The Iraq Inquiry took almost seven years to complete and was widely criticised, not least by the families of those that died. Other options, such as public inquests – which typically take less than a year – could result in faster outcomes and save the taxpayer both time and money. 


No one doubts the necessity of a thorough examination of what took place during those turbulent times, and what the long term consequences of decisions made have been. Unfortunately at the moment that’s not what taxpayers are receiving. It won’t be long before they’re asking what the returns policy is for the £100 million fee they’re being forced to cough up.

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