In the last series of political satire, The Thick of It, showrunner Armando Iannucci makes the big set-piece plot story a public inquiry into the ethics of leaking. A clear mimicry of the contemporaneous Leveson inquiry, it forces all the show’s deplorable characters to air their dirty laundry and wilt under the spectacle of accountability. It gave the show’s main character, Malcolm Tucker, his great curtain call, as he rage, rage, raged against the dying of the light.
This is crucial public work masquerading as a soap opera
Now tell me if our real-time, real-life inquiry is truly any different. I can’t deny that I have been glued to its every twist and turn; it is a behaviour I cannot justify. But there is a gross starkness to its appeal. The high drama of it all. The poring over WhatsApp comments and diary notes. Forget I’m a Celebrity, this is my reality TV.
Yet of course it isn’t. This is crucial public work masquerading as a soap opera. How would I feel if I had lost someone to the pandemic? Granted, like most, I lost plenty: my independence, valuable months of my education, and the health and happiness of my loved ones. But never was my life or the life of a loved one left in the hands of intensive care doctors or nurses, or ultimately with our decision makers.
In some ways, that is the strongest feeling watching the inquiry evokes, one of disconnect. Was this really only three years ago? The Dominic Cummings rose garden speech? The daily ‘next slide please’ from Matt Hancock, Chris Whitty, and Patrick Vallance? Like so many of my generation, the repressed trauma of those who had served in or experienced the World Wars had bemused me. But now I totally understand it. We have a tendency to move on simply because we have to.
At its core, the inquiry is a fact-finding mission, and with that will inevitably come some degree of justice
That is what disturbs me most about this inquiry. It has a real human cost, as well as one to the taxpayer (believed to have already reached £85 million by summer 2022). The bereaved are not without representation. In fact, their counsels frequently make appearances at the tail end of hearings, after examination from the main presiding counsels. At its core, the inquiry is a fact-finding mission, and with that will inevitably come some degree of justice.
But if our national experience with inquiries teaches us anything, it is that most leave an underwhelming feeling. The Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq rumbled on for nearly a decade and was resisted as much as possible by the Labour government which set it up. Any lessons learned from the war had arguably already been consumed by the time it was reported in 2016. The independent inquiry into child sex abuse went through four chairs and drew several complaints about its nature and scope.
There are of course exceptions, like the recent Manchester Arena inquiry undoubtedly did a thorough job of identifying failures and amending future planning. But the present stages of the Covid pandemic have an enormous sense of deja vu to them. Each witness may have a slightly different memory of events but most broadly share the same conclusions: the apparatus of government was woefully unprepared to handle something the size of Covid and there was a noted slowness to its handling in the early stages.
Until the inquiry can get past this drama, it is little more than perverse public theatre
So, what now? Can’t we skip this step and move straight to the learning lessons part where the government and Civil Service make commitments to improving their preparedness for the inevitable next pandemic? This will be where the inquiry has its real value. The several published memoirs and ‘explosive’ TV interviews have already created the defining image of chaos which befell Downing Street in the midst of all of this. Until the inquiry can get past this drama, it is little more than perverse public theatre.