Isolation policy is failing: APPG on Coronavirus

The government's isolation policy is not working. We need a public inquiry
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The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus has said the government must urgently increase support for those self-isolating. This comes after reports from an internal Westminster government assessment. This has found that its current isolation policy only has “low to medium” effectiveness.

The cross-party group has repeatedly called on the government to increase financial support for those self-isolating. Scientific experts have warned that lack of support is undermining this key measure in the fight against the coronavirus.

Layla Moran, Chair of the APPG on Coronavirus, said:

“It is incredibly damning that the government’s own internal assessment has found their current Test, Trace & Isolate policy isn’t working properly.

“Ministers must urgently fix this huge hole in our defences against Covid and start providing proper financial support to those required to self-isolate, as we have repeatedly called for.

“The government’s refusal to learn from its mistakes risks undoing our hard-won progress against the coronavirus. This shows why we need a public inquiry now, to ensure lessons are learned ahead of any future waves.”

APPG on Coronavirus, oral evidence hearing 15 June

The Prime Minister (PM) has now agreed to a statutory public inquiry on the Covid-19 pandemic; however, the policy on isolation needs to change now.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Coronavirus held on 15 June, was on the scope and structure of the future Covid public inquiry. There was emphasis on the need for the inquiry to be held as soon as possible. “I can certainly say that we will do that within this session,” PM Johnson said. However, the inquiry could be launched in the first half of next year but not start hearings until autumn 2022.

The session considered the scope and structure of the public inquiry. It looked at how best to ensure lessons are learned from the government’s handling of the pandemic. The APPG brings together 74 MPs and peers, representing all four nations and every Westminster party.

APPG on Coronavirus questions and responses

Q Why are we doing this what is the value of a public inquiry into government handling of the pandemic and what should the inquiry’s objectives be?

Lord Kerslake, former head of the Civil Service and former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government said:

“I think the purposes of such an inquiry should be firstly to find the facts, secondly to identify who is responsible for what … basically why did things happen in the way they did, and crucially lessons for the future. I strongly believe we need that inquiry to be underway sooner rather than later. It is in my view urgent.”

Jodie Blackstock, barrister and legal director for JUSTICE is responsible for JUSTICE’s legal and policy output. This aims to strengthen the justice system across criminal, civil and administrative jurisdictions:

“A public inquiry hears from survivors as well as the wider public to understand what went wrong and how you ultimately achieve some sense of justice from the tragic events that occurred. … the public inquiry does not apportion liability but it shouldn’t be afraid of inquiring into places which would perhaps identify where that liability might lie for subsequent proceedings.”

Richard Murray, currently CEO of the King’s Fund after serving for five years as the Director of Policy. Before joining the King’s Fund, he was chief analyst at NHS England:

“There must be lessons to be learned here…. there are some positive lessons as well that we don’t want to lose. … “

Tim Gardner is senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation. Until recently, he was a Senior Policy Advisor in the NHS Strategy and Delivery Unit:

“The key thing is to learn lessons. For other major health emergencies, we urgently need to understand how our response to those can be better.”

A neutral arbiter of the truth

Question: An inquiry has to be this sort of neutral arbiter of the truth. Which department is it that is going to set this up, and which minister is it who is going to be responsible for this?

Marcus Shepheard, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG) and co-author of the IfG publication The coronavirus inquiry: the case for an investigation of government actions during the Covid pandemic:

“I think there are conflicts of interest everywhere. … this has to be set up by the Prime Minister; he has to own this. It goes so centrally to the heart of government decision making. … the sponsoring department has to be the Cabinet Office. … this has to be very hands off. … the sponsoring department gives them the resources they need and nothing more. The Cabinet Office should not be exerting direction on the inquiry, it should not be seeking to influence appointments.”

Building trust discussed at APPG

Question: Paul Strasburger (Liberal Democrat Peer) asked: “Public trust in the process of inquiry and all its findings is fundamentally important; how should we be building trust?”

Lord Kerslake: “We need a chair who is beyond question, is independent and not party to any of the actions that were taken. We need consultation on the terms of reference and indeed the scope so it’s not simply determined inside government”.

Marcus Shepheard said: “…trust is a process not an event. It’s not enough to just sort of appoint a worthy person as chair, we need a very worthy person. I think trust has to be this thing that you work at continuously and that is going to involve an ongoing process of public engagement. There will absolutely need to be a very serious resource investment in staff to do communications, public engagement and public outreach. … both to find accounts from people and hear their stories, but also just to remind people an inquiry is still there.”

Health and wealth inequalities discussed at APPG

Question: Caroline Lucas MP asked if the scope of the inquiry should: “look into the health and wealth inequalities present at the time the pandemic hit, and finally should it look into the health and economic outcomes of the decisions made?”

Lord Kerslake felt that: “inevitably this government ultimately will decide the scope, but consultations are needed. There should be a wide scope, breaking it down into stages. There need to be reports on components as the inquiry moves along, and some of these could happen in parallel.” Agreeing with the Kings Fund, Lord Kerslake said:

“The inquiry should look at the issue of the resilience of the country and inequalities in health. I think the core of it should be health outcomes but it can’t not look the economic context in which those decisions were made … it will have to look at … the economy and the wider concerns about the economy infrastructure … one of the reasons some people didn’t isolate in the way they should was because the support for them in isolation financially wasn’t enough. I know many people who literally carried on working when they shouldn’t have done, and the lower your income the more vulnerable your job and the more likely you carried on [working].”

Tim Gardner said that the inquiry needs to be focused on the quality of the decisions that happened at the very heart of the government. The World Health Organisation looked at the international response to Covid-19 and found that the countries that were hardest hit by the pandemic generally ignored or denied the threat and didn’t value the scientific advice they were given. This delayed crucial decisions.

Lessons to learn: the scope of a Coronavirus Public Inquiry 

It’s a huge challenge to determine the scope of the inquiry. Expecting one Chair to sort it out is not feasible. A kind of supercharged panel was suggested; this could be an overall Chair, a group of advisers and panellists. The panellists would take ownership for streams of work within the inquiry. There might be a stream that looked at effectiveness of institutions within government, like the civil contingency’s secretariat. There might be another stream which looks at the operation of Public Health England; and there might be another looking at decision-making in the Department of Health in relation to schools, and at the same time this could be coordinated within a single body. Such a structure would enable different aspects of pandemic management to be investigated concurrently, so that interim conclusions and recommendations can be published during the inquiry.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Group said “Learning lessons from the pandemic is critical to saving lives now, and in the future;” the Group said in a statement:

“The prime minister knows that and he’s said as much. So why does he think it can wait?

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