HAROLD Wilson had a way with words. Remember him expertly conjoining promise and challenge when he confronted us with the “white heat” of the technological revolution?

Perhaps you recall him, as Labour Prime Minister, declaring, without a blush, that the pound in our pockets was unaffected by currency devaluation.

My personal favourite is when he faced demands for a Royal Commission on trade unions. He noted drily that such an endeavour would “take minutes and waste years”.

That can be the fate which awaits public inquiries too. Yet, despite those concerns, it remains right and proper that just such an inquiry is scheduled for the Covid pandemic. Pause to reflect that any inquiry will open, post mortem. Literally and many times over.

Under current UK thinking, the inquiry is due to begin around the turn of the year, on the presumption that the virus will have relented sufficiently by then.

Some, however, seem reluctant to wait. At Holyrood this week, Labour’s Anas Sarwar demanded that work begin right now to set up an inquiry, solely in Scotland, led by a judge.

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Why? Mr Sarwar argues that Scotland cannot afford to wait for answers: did we respond quickly enough in the initial phase; was lockdown effective; how about those transfers from hospitals to care homes; the vaccine programme; information sharing; protective equipment in hospitals?

This appeal is superficially attractive. Yet I believe it is misplaced. When it begins, a public inquiry will be all-consuming and all-pervasive, completely absorbing the time and attention of Ministers and civil servants.

The very Ministers and civil servants who should remain sharply focused on suppressing this hideous plague, with its seemingly endless capacity to mutate. They need to act now, prepared to answer questions later.

There is an evident political dimension to Mr Sarwar’s appeal. His pitch is designed to tempt nationalist supporters who might be intuitively inclined to back an inquiry focusing purely on Scotland.

Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon noted sardonically that her opponents would usually be inviting her to co-operate with the UK, rather than going solo north of the Border.

The Herald:

However, she is acutely aware of the trap being laid for her. As leader of Scottish Labour, Mr Sarwar wants to spotlight failings by the First Minister, while connecting those with blunders he lays at the door of Downing Street.

He envisages the following equation. Boris Johnson is bad, in Scotland’s eyes. With regard to Covid, Sturgeon did much the same as Johnson. Ergo Sturgeon is bad. QED.

There could be, he declared, “no Scottish exceptionalism”. He said he had drawn up a timeline which proved that the actions of Scottish Ministers ran in step with those promulgated by Downing Street.

With contrived weariness, Ms Sturgeon congratulated Mr Sarwar on having the leisure to construct timelines. She could, she said, paper the walls of her office with such documents. She would rather strive day and night to protect the people of Scotland.

It was an effective put-down, all the more potent for being constrained and understated.

Yet the First Minister knows she faces a challenge with regard to the pending public inquiry, for all that she insisted she relishes the prospect. Indeed, she pre-empted that challenge once more with the “candid admission” that her administration had been responsible for lapses and mistakes.

She added, quietly and poignantly, that she would regret those mistakes for the rest of her life. One must presume that, by this, she is referring primarily to the early phase of the virus, to the speedy transfer of elderly and vulnerable patients from hospitals to care homes.

Self-evidently, that will be one of the issues to be examined in any public inquiry, whether Scottish or UK. But what sort of investigation might we expect? They range widely, generally depending upon the initial motivation and the extent of legal representation.

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Let us consider three. I personally covered every single day of the inquiry chaired by Lord Fraser into the rising costs and delays which beset the Holyrood Parliament building.

That was conceded, politically, to take the heat out of public fury over a project which threatened at the time to destabilise devolution in its entirety. The construction of TBB, That Bloody Building, was undermining the very foundations of self-government.

But the inquiry itself was held in check by a key decision, from the chair. Which was that evidence would be led by a single advocate, the estimable John Campbell QC. There would be no cross-examination on behalf of interested parties. Lord Fraser and Mr Campbell would pursue the truth on behalf of taxpayers.

Then we have the inquiry into the Edinburgh trams project. That, too, was designed to assuage public anger. But it turned into a complex contractual battle between competing parties. Set up in June 2014, it has yet to report. The city council is proceeding with an extension to the tram network, without awaiting the inquiry verdict.

Thirdly, let us consider the detailed and thorough investigation into historic incidences of child abuse in care.

With Lady Smith in the chair, the approach here has also been inquisitorial rather than combative. Lawyers for interested parties can submit relevant material to the inquiry’s own counsel. But the focus is strictly, solemnly and rightly on the grim treatment endured by some of Scotland’s children.

The pandemic inquiry may also seek to provide catharsis for those most severely affected. It is motivated perhaps in part by public anger over past events but more, in my view, by public fear; by a desperate determination to prevent repetition.

Nicola Sturgeon has declared her readiness to agree a four-nation inquiry, with a back-up plan for a Scotland-only investigation. Why pan UK? Three reasons: the cross-border issues are similar; some topics like global travel invite UK scrutiny; and a wider inquiry blurs focus and spreads responsibility.

Ms Sturgeon and Mr Johnson may not agree on much. Indeed, they have regularly differed, to a degree, on pandemic action. But they are as one on this.

The inquiry should open only when the virus is subdued. And it should reflect the unique, unprecedented challenges faced by government. On both sides of the border.