Don’t wait for government – UK scientists should conduct a Covid inquiry, now | Philip Ball


Boris Johnson’s promise of a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is welcome, but tardy and vague. It is scarcely surprising that the government has been dragging its feet, for no independent, objective and credible inquiry could be anything but devastating about the political handling of the crisis. The long and lethal litany of blunders and cover-ups presented in Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s book Failures of State beggars belief, even while it is so recent in memory.

Official inquiries are rarely characterised by frankness or timeliness. Like the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, they tend to become drawn-out exercises in political point-scoring, at best detonating a weak charge long after the event. If the Covid inquiry does ever happen (Johnson hardly has a good track record of keeping promises), it is likely to be trammeled by evasion, foot-dragging and blame-shifting on a scale that will make Chilcot look terse and incisive in comparison.

We can’t afford that. The guidance a proper inquiry could offer is sorely needed. Not only is the pandemic far from over – in many ways it is more dangerous now than ever – but we will be living with Covid, and the threat of new viral pandemics, for the indefinite future. A swiftly implemented inquiry last summer might have offered valuable lessons before the awful second wave hit in the winter.

Besides, an honest inquiry is a moral obligation. The British population has suffered and endured so much over the past year that it is owed an account of how and why things happened as they did. We should not have to wait years for that, when memories are dim, narratives rewritten, and accountability moot.

But there is no need to wait on Johnson’s word, and at his convenience, for that. The UK’s scientific community should unite now to conduct its own inquiry into that crucial aspect of the pandemic response it is qualified to assess: the science. An alliance of bodies such as the Royal Society, the British Medical Association, the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Wellcome Trust, the Crick Institute and others would have both the authority and the expertise to examine what went wrong and what went right, and how we can do better.

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Why the UK had, by the end of March, one of the highest per capita Covid death rates globally as well as one of the worst hit economies ultimately comes down to political decisions. But many important questions need to be asked about the scientific and medical response, too. Were we adequately prepared? Was the scientific advice broad enough and sufficiently integrated with public-health expertise? (Likely answer: not always.) Did it adequately heed international expertise? How well was scientific understanding communicated to the public?

One key issue for such an inquiry is whether enough attention was given to what might be deemed peripheral but, as we now see, are crucial areas of science and technology. Efforts to ramp up testing capacity, for example, were impressive but limited in their impact in the face of failures to provide testing facilities, to deliver quick results, to trace contacts for people testing positive and to give them the means to self-isolate. We’ve done well in areas of “hard” science, but rather poorly on “soft” but essential issues such as keeping supply chains running or monitoring care homes. The entire traditional status hierarchy of science, from hard (biotech) to soft (social, economic and public health) does not reflect importance when the chips are down.

Some will balk at the idea of launching such an inquiry now, saying that it is too early and that the scientists are still too busy. But an inquiry is not an optional addendum to those activities: it is needed urgently. Science cannot function well without constant self-monitoring and reflection. The comprehensive report on the global response just published by the World Health Organization’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response shows both the feasibility and the value of such a rapid analysis.

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Others will ask whether the science can really be separated from the politics. To which the answer is: not entirely, but that is no reason not to do what can be done. We can ask questions, for example, about the quality of the scientific advice given to government independently of whether it was followed. And if it was not, scientists have a right and an obligation to ask why not – they should not passively resign themselves to the “on tap” status assigned to them by Winston Churchill.

Others might fear that an inquiry would become a blame game: who got it wrong? That objection would be bizarre. What is science about, if not rigorous examination of its predictions and interventions in the face of empirical evidence? To gain reliable knowledge, scientists have to risk error all the time, especially in such a crisis where they are forced to make judgment calls in the face of incomplete and uncertain data. In such circumstances, there is no shame in mistakes.

All the same, there can be no avoiding the fact that the initial strategy, based on notions of herd immunity, was hideously mistaken, contrasted with much of the international advice, and was abandoned only after modelling showed what in retrospect seems the obvious conclusion: that the fatalities would be terrible. How did good scientists get things so wrong? (And how could it possibly be indecorous to ask?) How should we regard those few yet vocal scientists who continue to advocate such ideas in the face of all the evidence, lending dangerous support to libertarian ideologues? Why did some scientists (not just in the UK) pronounce with such misplaced confidence on uncertain questions such as the value of mask-wearing and the sources of viral transmission? To what extent was the scientific advice to government seduced into collusion?

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These hard questions would be better asked and assessed by fellow scientists than by an inquiry already mired in politics. In the face of a political climate where no error, however obvious and grave, is admitted, science has an opportunity to demonstrate genuine accountability and fairness, which includes a readiness to accept responsibility.

Besides, a scientific inquiry would be by no means just about the mistakes. There are real strengths and triumphs to be acknowledged. While the intense internationalism of modern science leaves the scientific community rightfully dismissive of nationalistic posturing, the British contribution to a safe and affordable vaccine that could be central to the global programme is something to celebrate. So, too, are the UK’s efforts to track emerging new viral variants by genomic analysis, thanks in particular to the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium. It would be an insult to all parties to parade such work as “world-beating” – but it is absolutely world-class, and deserves to be recognised as such.

At the start of the pandemic, chemistry Nobel laureate Jennifer Doudna told her colleagues: “We need to step up.” That goes for all scientists. With a vacuum of leadership, integrity and transparency in Westminster, the scientific community has an opportunity, indeed a duty, to demonstrate these qualities with a frank examination of how well it met this unprecedented challenge. Some of the answers might be uncomfortable – but we deserve to hear them.



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