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When Boris Johnson let slip to the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, on Tuesday that he would kick off a Covid inquiry in the current session of parliament, it initially appeared to be an off-the-cuff remark.
But as he prepared to give MPs a “Covid update” on Wednesday, it became clear No 10 has made the calculation that now was the right moment to announce an inquiry – though not yet to allow it to start work.
Johnson’s team will hope that having a firm date in place, instead of his repeated promises of an inquiry “when the time is right”, will help to neutralise – or postpone – some of the toughest questions about the pandemic, at least for now.
But they will also have their eyes on a much larger prize: the next general election.
In the short-term, the prime minister’s management of the crisis is set to come under fierce scrutiny at Westminster. Later this month, Johnson’s ertswhile right-hand man Dominic Cummings is due to give evidence at a potentially explosive select committee hearing.
Cummings has made clear he intends to draw attention to what he regards as the failings of the government’s response to the Covid pandemic – including the fateful decision to reject scientists’ advice, and refuse to call a lockdown last September.
His evidence – coming from one of the few people who was in the room for key decisions and is no longer bound by collective responsibility – is being hotly anticipated at Westminster.
Expectations were only heightened when Johnson went to war with his ex-aide, with the prime minister reportedly briefing newspaper editors personally that Cummings had been responsible for a series of embarrassing leaks.
After Wednesday’s announcement of a public inquiry, however, Downing Street will now have a reassuringly bland answer to whatever accusations Cummings throws at it.
It can insist all such matters – did Johnson fail to grasp the scale of the crisis? Was the Department of Health a “smoking ruin,” as Cummings has previously claimed? – will be examined sombrely, from all sides, at the public inquiry to come.
As to the question of why the inquiry’s work cannot begin sooner, as bereaved families and opposition parties have demanded, Johnson claimed the key protagonists remain too busy.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday, he stressed the significant burden an inquiry would place on the NHS and government, and insisted it should wait until the “heat” of the pandemic is over.
“We must not inadvertently divert and distract the very people on whom we all depend,” he said, stressing the risks of new Covid variants, and of a potential third wave in the winter ahead.
Johnson said he wanted to see findings published within a “reasonable timescale”.
According to thinktank the Institute for Government, most public inquiries take “around two years” to report back, with the duration of the 69 that were launched between 1990 and 2017 varying between 45 days, and 13 years and three months.
The precise terms of reference of the inquiry will be set by the government, which will also name a chair. But given the complexity of the questions involved, and the breadth of personnel likely to be called – scientists, civil servants, ministers, many with their own legal representation – a fast turnaround appears unlikely.
Long before it reports, the inquiry may nevertheless reveal evidence and documents that help to shed light on how critical decisions were made in the dark days of 2020, and the roles of Johnson, Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and other key figures.
But with received wisdom at Westminster pointing to a 2023 general election, the delay until next Spring all but guarantees that few conclusions will yet have been reached, when the UK next goes to the polls to elect a government.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Boris Johnson’s big gamble on Covid-19 public inquiry | Coronavirus