ONE sign that we are emerging from the worst phase of the Covid-19 pandemic is that plans are finally being made for an independent public inquiry. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has said that one will be launched next Spring.

In Scotland, the SNP committed in its election manifesto to taking steps to establish an inquiry as soon as possible after the election. It looks like the UK announcement means whatever is set up will take a four-nations approach, or at least there will be consultation across governments to see how viable that is.

This announcement is welcome but overdue, as groups including the Covid-19 Bereaved Families For Justice group have been calling for an inquiry since last July.

Public inquiries take time to set up and then to gather evidence and report. This process is likely to take years rather than months. Findings will help longer term planning but will not change much, if anything, soon.

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In the meantime we are beginning to see other review mechanisms be established internationally that are already aiming to learn lessons from recent months. Their findings should help us here in Scotland to try and chart a steady course in the short term and also point to issues that need examined in our own inquiries.

The first formal review of the global response to Covid-19 was published this week. This was a report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR). It was convened in September 2020 and made up of 13 members from different countries, co-chaired by Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia. The panel reviewed a range of evidence and spoke to many experts and different groups. They reflected on the fact that the pandemic has been the worst health, social and economic crisis in living memory, with 148 million people infected and over three million deaths up to the end of April 2021, although this is likely an underestimate.

What the IPPPR report makes clear is that the pandemic was preventable, and argues that there hasn’t been sufficient learning from previous infectious disease epidemics like Ebola and SARS. While experts have mapped out how to plan for, prevent, or at least mitigate the impact of these crises, their recommendations have not been taken seriously enough.


The report has a strong focus on the global level but also makes recommendations for countries, how they can contribute internationally, and what they need to do within their own borders. This has implications for Scotland and indeed how any enquiry is conducted here or at UK level.

The report is an example of the benefits of conducting an inquiry early, because some of its recommendations need to be implemented now to accelerate recovery and prevent more deaths globally. It also includes longer term recommendations. Immediate priorities are around vaccines.

The report recommends that high income countries like the UK that have already secured enough vaccines to protect their own populations should, while still delivering jags into arms domestically, provide low and middle income countries with at least one billion vaccine doses by the autumn of this year, with more to follow in 2022.

The mechanism for this is Covax, the Covid-19 vaccines global access facility which the UK joined in September last year. They also recommend waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines (which the US recently endorsed) to allow more countries to manufacture vaccines themselves.

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Looking ahead, IPPPR also sets out what needs to change in global health governance. They call for more funding for the World Health Organisation from individual countries, rather than forcing the WHO to rely on big philanthropic organisations. Plus they ask the United Nations to set up a global threats council to coordinate international and national pandemic preparedness, and call for a new international pandemic financing facility.

The panel praises some countries for their response to Covid-19 and roundly criticises others, without naming names. Some countries suffered from poor leadership and slow and insufficient action, downplayed risks and didn’t take sufficient account of evidence on what (and what not) to do.

Others managed to minimise both the direct harms from the virus and the indirect damage caused by lockdowns with schools and businesses closed.

Looking ahead, they point to some key lessons. The first is the need for strong leadership and coordination – a ‘whole of government’ response to continue to address Covid-19. Investing in preparation now for future crises with access to rapid and accurate data and knowing who is accountable for which actions. Having national plans in place for supplies (of PPE, for example), diagnostics, medicines and vaccines. Plus, setting aside funds for preparation that can be quickly accessed to deal with outbreaks or future threats. These issues will undoubtedly come up in an inquiry into the pandemic here in Scotland and across the UK.

There is a final point from this report that is worth emphasising. It isn’t enough for international or national authorities to simply instruct people how to behave when a crisis hits. It’s much more effective if people can get involved, be listened to and feel they have a stake in a collective response.

As we look ahead to a public inquiry on Covid-19, the most important voices will be those of the people of Scotland. Not just the families who have lost loved ones but also those working on the front line, and those affected by the measures taken to address the pandemic. It is their experiences that can help us learn lessons and prevent this from happening again.

Linda Bauld is Chair of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh

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