THE Scottish Covid independent inquiry chair, appointed by the Scottish Government in December 2021, faces a daunting task. She promised the inquiry would be ‘open and transparent’.

This needs to be demonstrated quickly to ensure the public ‘right to know’. Trust in the transparency and rigour of recent inquiries and investigations has been damaged due to failures by some Scottish inquiry chairs and civil servants.

Inquiries should be accountable to the public to maintain confidence but in the six months since Lady Poole’s appointment, little new information has emerged. The inquiry has recruited Scottish Government health policy civil servants to its team.

The inquiry needs to consult key pandemic players but not to be influenced unduly by them. If the inquiry secretariat contains civil servants from various Scottish Government departments – major players in the pandemic – maintaining neutrality and retaining independence from government in the public’s eyes could prove difficult and produce perceived potential conflicts of interest.

Nevertheless, it will ensure those with the necessary detailed knowledge of Scotland’s political, social and health service landscape and Covid work are recruited.

More problematic and perhaps bringing greater conflicts of interest could be the inquiry advisors who may shape and inform the inquiry in particular ways. We still do not know if there will be a panel assisting the chair and /or assessors and advisors and, if so, who they might be.

The ‘establishment phase’ now underway is an important and integral not separate part of the inquiry. The temporary inquiry website acknowledges: "the research will assist the inquiry with decisions about the shape and direction of its investigation.”

This is critical. We are all interested parties and have all been affected by the pandemic. The inquiry planning phase and the critical blueprint that shaped and developed it, however, remains hidden. The public do not know what questions the chair asked, of whom and why. Research has already been commissioned and apparently completed to inform this phase but no findings are in the public domain. The inquiry is funded by public money so there are no reasons to withhold such information or for decisions to be taken behind closed doors

The ‘proper’ public inquiry ‘launch’ is not planned until early summer 2022 but worrying perceptions of the inquiry have recently emerged based on media reports of meetings between the families of those who died from Covid in care homes and the chair. Greater openness and rapid postings of information on an official website might well help to correct any future misperceptions.

One other dimension external to the inquiry will be important. The signs are not good. UK governments always claim to be working for the public good but the pandemic now requires they fully cooperate with Covid inquiries. Both UK and Scottish Governments have proved evasive in the last two years on a range of issues. Both governments are sadly already starting to display a lack of transparency and accountability around Covid and may further erode public trust in investigations underway or about to start.

Details of past English Covid PPE contracts cannot apparently be disclosed because of commercial confidentiality. The rights of health care, social care workers, and care home residents whose lives were lost or health affected because of poor or unsuitable PPE to get the facts appear to be of secondary importance. In Scotland, simple questions about whether legal advice was sought on moving hospital patients into care homes during the pandemic in early 2020 have been rebuffed.

All UK governments have contested Freedom of Information requests and sometimes decisions that go against them. The Scottish Government record of cooperation on investigations requiring access to information on important decisions in several recent inquiries and investigations has been seriously flawed, verging on the Orwellian.

Politicians cannot remember dates, events or meetings, key documents go missing or apparently never existed, and civil servants remain unaccountable. We have been told some civil servants are ‘office holders’ not ‘people’ and so on occasions cannot give evidence about their actions.

If such an approach is adopted in response to the Covid investigation, the inquiry will be a farce. Scottish Government civil service jobs are now being advertised in the Covid Inquiry Information Governance Division (CIIG) ‘to redact and prepare documents……’ to support the Scottish Government in preparing for and responding to the Scottish and UK Covid public inquiries.

Redacting personal clinical information will be necessary, if consent is not given, but otherwise redacting information about Scottish Government decisions and those of their advisors will make a mockery of Government commitments to openness and transparency.

The Scottish inquiry must therefore ensure public confidence and trust are restored from the start by demonstrating openness and transparency, as the chair has promised. The Scottish Government needs to follow Lady Poole's lead without swithering.

Professor Andrew Watterson is a public health researcher at University of Stirling