There is pressure for an inquiry into the response to the Covid pandemic in Scotland. If it proceeds, there are questions to be addressed about its scope and format.
First, what would be its purpose? There are many possibilities, including: to learn from what was done (or not done) and identify what might be done differently in the future; to assess the way the four nations cooperated (or not); to examine the role of experts and their relationship with politicians and civil servants; to assign responsibility to individuals or institutions; to address compensation or other claims; to provide a forum those who have suffered loss to express their concerns; to find fault or scapegoats; even to kick a difficult and sensitive matter into the long grass. Identifying the objective(s) is vital, after which other questions follow.
These include timing: when would the inquiry be held and, crucially, over what period of time? There are examples of public inquiries taking years (such as those relating to trams and child abuse). There may be good reasons for this but would a lengthy timescale serve the objectives of a Covid inquiry? Or would a tight timetable be set and expectations (and cost) managed accordingly?
By whom would an inquiry be conducted? Would the tradition of appointing a judge be the best choice? Or someone with expertise in the subject? Or a team? Complete independence (someone from outside Scotland?) seems crucial.
For whom would an inquiry to be conducted? To inform the general public, those who have suffered loss, policymakers making decisions in future – or all of these? There are multiple audiences, with different needs and for whom different approaches may be required. Indeed, given that the pandemic raises a complex web of issues, could these all be covered in one process? And where would it be held? In a central Scotland office block or around the country, engaging communities and those affected?
How would it be conducted? Some inquiries take on the characteristics of an adversarial process, similar to courts or arbitration, with lawyers representing and defending clients. Would it have the partisan characteristics of the recent Salmond inquiry? Or could it become an overly forensic exercise, risking obfuscation?
Arguably, we need a learning environment with deep exploration of the issues in safe spaces, to really get under the surface. If we assume that everyone has been trying their best, how can we move from a blame and fear-driven culture to something more constructive and forward-looking?
This could be a real opportunity to do things differently, to make a real difference, and not just for Scotland. Will we have that vision and courage?
John Sturrock, 2 August 2021
A modified version of this blog appeared in The Times on Monday 2 August 2021