The Covid inquiry looks sound – so why the secrecy?

by | 15 Dec 2021

The remit of the Scottish Government's Covid Inquiry is pretty comprehensive and its Chair predictable but solid - but information is still being held back and the reasons for this are not clear

Having written yesterday that there was no sign of the Scottish Government’s Covid Inquiry actually starting work, today the remit and Chair of the Inquiry was announced. On the whole it looks like the remit of the Inquiry is sound.

The remit appears to cover most of what should be covered. It has been expanded since the consultation was put out and one of the welcome additions is that it is now going to look properly at the pre-pandemic planning and how that was (or more accurately wasn’t) followed through on.

It is clearly tasked to look at the discharge of patients with Covid into care homes, the delay in the first lockdown, the speed at which a testing regime was introduced, the management of the NHS and the support given to businesses during the pandemic.

It isn’t quite comprehensive. Two issues which are not specifically set out in the remit is the failure to provide open, honest information about the first outbreak in Scotland and no mention of examining profiteering during the pandemic.

The former of these two could be picked up by the Inquiry Chair under other headings but not really the latter. This is quite a significant omission – a number of powerful businesses use the Covid crisis to lever profits and a public debate about the appropriateness is one that should be had.

For example, Astra Zenneca has received nothing like enough praise for specifically not profiteering from its vaccine, selling it more-or-less at cost. It hasn’t been entirely blameless – it’s discounts to poorer countries have too many exemptions – but this is still a comparatively moral position.

Pfizer on the other hand has openly price-gouged with its vaccine, setting costs high as it could and raising that price further when it thought it could get away with it. It’s is estimated that the company has been making $1,000 profit every second. There really should be democratic consequences from this – but only if democracy looks at it.

Not including profiteering in the remit is quite a significant omission – a number of powerful businesses use the Covid crisis to lever profits and a public debate about the appropriateness is one that should be had

Otherwise, this looks like a robust Inquiry. It is to be Chaired by Lady Poole, a predictably appropriate-but-safe choice which is to be expected. Lady Poole was one of the intake in the UK Supreme Court which was seen as having shifted the Court further into small-c conservative territory.

While this suggests that the Inquiry will be rigorous it isn’t entirely a reassurance that it will be rigorous in its conclusions – after all, Lord Hutton was also a respected legal figure and the 2004 report into the Iraq War was the definition of a complete whitewash.

This leaves one question outstanding – if the Scottish Government is taking seriously the views of those who submitted evidence to the consultation on the remit (which it appears it did given the changes), why the secrecy?

The launch of the Inquiry comes with the publication of the summary of responses to the consultation. This is unusually opaque – we do not know who responded or what their response was.

What we know is that there were 415 email responses of which 308 were from individuals, 55 from third sector organisations, 15 from local government, 28 from the public sector and nine from the private sector. In addition there were 11 meetings with ‘key stakeholders’.

But we don’t know who the organisations were, what they submitted or who were the 11 ‘key stakeholders’. There may be no reason to see this as suspicious, but there is certainly some reason to wonder. This is not normal government practice and the anonymising of respondents in this instance is unusual.

We can be pretty confident that the remit of the Inquiry enables the necessary scope of investigation and that it has been given precisely the kind of Chair it was always going to be given. It would just help public confidence if the Scottish Government didn’t seem to be so surreptitious about this…

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