Coronavirus: Two former Tory cabinet ministers launch inquiry into government’s handling of pandemic

Chairs of Commons science and health committees warn PM’s promised independent inquiry will come ‘too late’ for the months ahead

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Thursday 08 October 2020 08:02
Boris Johnson said wind power would could not 'pull the skin off a rice pudding'
Boris Johnson said wind power would could not 'pull the skin off a rice pudding'

Two former Conservative cabinet ministers have launched a joint parliamentary inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, as they warned No 10’s own probe will come “too late”.

As infections of the virus surge across the country, Greg Clark, chair of the Commons science and technology committee and Jeremy Hunt, chair of the health committee, said “important lessons need to be learned” to help inform decisions through the next phase of the crisis.

Their two committees – alongside MPs who sit on them – will aim to produce a joint report in the Spring of 2021, but insisted there will be “staging posts” along the way.

In their sessions the chairs are expected to call on ministers and on professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific, who have often appeared alongside Boris Johnson at No 10, to give evidence to MPs.

The inquiry – starting next week –will focus on the deployment of non-pharmaceutical interventions like the national lockdown and social distancing rules to manage the pandemic, the impact on the social care sector and the government’s widely criticised Test and Trace system.

It will also probe the UK’s prior preparedness for a pandemic, the development of treatments and vaccines, and the impact of coronavirus on people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

In the summer, Boris Johnson committed to holding an independent inquiry into the pandemic, but insisted it was not the right time do so as the government continued “combatting” the virus. Downing Street has not given any further details as to when an inquiry may launch or the exact format.

Ahead of the launch of the joint inquiry by the two Commons committees, Mr Clark, the former business secretary under Theresa May, said: “We’re very focused on being able to find and learn lessons during the course of the pandemic that can be applied to decisions that might be coming up further down the road.

“The prime minister has committed to a public inquiry, but clearly that has some way to go before it even starts, let alone concludes. Whatever lessons and conclusions are learnt from that, it’s likely to be too late for the weeks and months ahead. 

"We want to in a constructive way, feedback what we learn from witnesses both in this country and around the world.”

In a statement, Mr Hunt said: “Parliament has a crucial role in scrutinising the actions of government at a time when the country is in the grip of a crisis such as the current pandemic with its tragic impact on lives and livelihoods.

“Important lessons need to be learned that can help inform further decisions that will need to be taken in the months ahead. It is crucial to learn and apply them now since the public inquiry that the prime minister has promised is likely to be some time away.”

The former cabinet minister added: “Our committees will jointly learn what went well, what didn’t, and what lessons must be learnt at this point in the pandemic. We will use the independence of our cross-party committees and weekly detailed questioning of witnesses to consider the decisions and the evidence they were based on and assess their effectiveness.

“We will develop clear recommendations so that the UK can benefit from the lessons learned for future stages of this pandemic and for future crises.”

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