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Written by Prof David Slater

Why we don’t need a COVID 19 Public Inquiry

Prof David Slater writes on how answers and hopefully some reassurance are needed around the seeming inability of some governments to get to grips, or even admit the seriousness of the challenges presented by COVID-19, but a conventional public inquiry is not the right way to get them.

Judge's gavel

Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong – these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.

Sir Winston Churchill

Does this sound familiar?

We are seeing understandable calls for a public accounting and explanation of the seeming inability of some governments to get to grips, or even admit the seriousness of the challenges presented by COVID-19. While answers and hopefully some reassurance are needed, a conventional public inquiry is not the right way to get them.

For one thing, look at the track record of recent examples. The Grenfell Inquiry is entering its 3rd year, with growing concerns on all sides that it is simply taking too long to unravel the systemic shortcomings and regulatory confusions, obvious to most people from the start.

This is now a recurring pattern, Public Inquiries are simply not very effective, efficient, helpful, or timely. They are expensive, cumbersome, intimidating, constraining, and disappointing, particularly for the victims.

At the same time, they often suit those who would prefer to divert, delay, or dissemble; convenient long grass to defer the liabilities or to make tackling the issues someone else’s problem. This disillusionment with inquiries has been well summarised in a recent Bennett Institute report, Policy lessons from catastophic events

A more significant reason at this time of national crisis, is that this is not the normal type of disaster. This is not a fire, train crash or chemical plant explosion. This is a slow-motion crash that could take years to play out. So why, if we need to learn lessons now, would we want to wait until they have probably become irrelevant after a lengthy inquiry? This type of incident requires a much more urgent reaction, learning now and applying some real time risk management, rather than retrospective, perhaps retrograde, retribution.

How could this urgent learning happen? One common response in government seems to be, “we were only following the science.”. This is either naïve, or admits genuine incomprehension or incompetence. As every scientist knows, science doesn’t follow the science blindly. The whole point of the scientific approach is to challenge, test, evolve, rethink, with a critical eye. One is only ever putting forward and testing hypotheses to form the best, but by no means unanimous, view of the situation possible. Responsibility requires ensuring taking best available (Expert / Scientific / consensus) advice, but not deferring to it unquestioningly, in making difficult decisions. Another reason to doubt the claim lies in the fact that the science is probably the one area where the UK can genuinely claim to be world class, as current vaccine and clinical responses have shown.

There is, though, a better way to respond to crises. After 9 /11, the Iraq war debacle, and other events, the various bodies responsible for fateful decisions resolved to set up systems of internal checks and balances, collectively referred to as red teaming.

The ideas behind red teaming are well known and long established. Popes appointed a “Devil’s Advocate” to curb the unquestioning acceptance of miraculous claims. The modern usage owes much to the military testing of battle plans prepared by staff officers (Prussian Blues), with an independent group of line officers charged with “thinking like the enemy”, which naturally became known as “Red Teams”. The term became more appropriate than ever during the equivalent cold war exercises. Today the intelligence services use the same philosophy but ground it more rigorously in scientific tools and psychological insights into human behaviour. So in the current case the initial battle plans were predicated on COVID-19 being a more conventional flu epidemic, with, apparently, no plan B. Similar examples can be seen in the “stay put” advice in Grenfell and in many other historic tragedies, such as Three Mile Island, Bhopal and Flixborough to name but a few.

There is no doubt that the deliberate inclusion of objective, even adversarial, challenge of assumptions would have helped pandemic-management. More and more organisations are recognising that they need to include this approach in their planning. More details on the technique can be found in standard texts  such as Red Team by Micah Zenko. 

Seemingly, the UK has one of the best red teams, in Shrivenham. The puzzling question is why the government here did not use this resource as well as high-profile committees like SAGE.

We humans deal with uncertainty naturally by predicting and correcting probable scenarios in the light of experience. This capability needs to be built into the system: if we do not have the capability to challenge prejudice, then we are doomed as Churchill pointed out, to repeat our mistakes – and in this current scenario this will add irresponsibly to the casualty count.                                  

Red teaming is not new, and not rocket science. There are rumours that the government did utilise military ‘agile’ teams to try to ‘debottleneck’ some chosen course of action.  But challenge is just as important – a sign of strength not weakness in leadership.

 So the conclusion is that we don’t need a public inquiry to tell us in several years time what we should have been doing all along; we need an intelligent internal mechanism now, to respond, learn and anticipate day to day. To allow us to admit and correct mistaken assumptions and decisions in a non-adversarial situation – after all, in a pandemic we are all on the same side. If blame is needed, then by all means a legal confrontation later, when we’ve survived the present crisis, is possible.

But I’m afraid that such suggestions may fall on deaf ears. There is no doubt that in government there can be a reluctance to hear expert advice, let alone be challenged.

To defeat coronavirus, we don’t need inquiry blues, we need red teaming, with proactive, predictive risk management. This pandemic is a very serious, but slow-moving disaster. We can tackle it in real time.

  • About the author

    Prof David Slater

    Prof David Slater was educated at the University College of Wales and Ohio State University and initially taught chemical engineering at Imperial College, London. Through the 1970s and 1980s, as founder of Technica, he led the pioneering application of risk assessment techniques to the offshore and petrochemical industries. As Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Pollution and Director of the Environment Agency, he had a leading role, through the 1990s, in developing and implementing risk-based pollution control legislation in the UK and Europe. He is currently a Director of the regulatory strategy organisation Cambrensis and is an Honorary Professor in the school of engineering at Cardiff University.