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09 June 2020

A public inquiry into the UK Government's handling of COVID-19 must focus on lesson-learning, not political accountability

A new report urges the UK to hold an expert-led inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic, which prioritises lesson-learning over political accountability.

COVID-19 information brochure from the UK government

Researchers from the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy call for a two-pronged approach, with a first inquiry focused on lesson-learning into why the UK has the world’s second highest number of COVID-19 deaths – ensuring we learn lessons for future outbreaks.

This should be initiated, co-ordinated and funded by a reputable organisation in the field of public health, such as the Wellcome Trust, Nuffield Foundation or Scientific Academies, and have a diverse panel and independent chair, said report co-author Christoph Meyer, Professor of European & International Politics in the Department of European and International Studies.

The objectives of lesson-learning and holding individuals and organisations to account are often in tension. Our key recommendation is to prioritise lesson-learning over political accountability for a public health-focused inquiry.

Report authors

If the public demands an answer to sufficiently serious and well-evidenced allegations of negligence, a second inquiry could then be initiated, focused on facts, accountability and restoring public trust.

In the report, the researchers highlight how inquiries can be highly effective tools in shaping institutional change and helping to make sense of a crisis. However, the design and timeliness of such a public inquiry are fundamental to ensuring the right lessons are recognised and acted upon.

If a public inquiry in the UK is going to have positive and lasting impact, we must avoid some of the problems that have beset inquiries in the UK and elsewhere. This is why we make the case for prioritising learning over accountability and suggest an inquiry led by respected institutions completely separate from government.

Professor Christoph Meyer

We do not know whether the coronavirus might mutate or when a new kind of pandemic will confront us. Therefore, it is crucial the UK learns as soon as possible and improve its capacity and policies.

Professor Christoph Meyer

This means the terms of reference for a public inquiry need to be sufficiently broad and flexible to enable the discovery of the key causes of shortcomings, identify the most important lessons, and generate the political will necessary to take those lessons forward.

Comparing the UK preparedness and response to those of other countries can help identify what works under different conditions and settings, and create a platform for a more robust international collaboration in the future.

The report, entitled Learning the right lessons for the next pandemic, says the panel members should include at least some experts from countries and international agencies that have the greatest potential to offer positive lessons to the UK.

The researchers also recommend that frontline workers and members of the community should be involved in order to adequately diagnose problems and develop appropriate and pragmatic solutions.

A commitment to the inclusion of a diversity of perspectives will also ensure acceptance of outcomes and help to improve public engagement in any future pandemic responses.

The report was co-authored by Professor Christoph Meyer and Dr Nikki Ikani, both of the Department of European and International Studies, and Professor Mauricio Avendano and Dr Ann Kelly, both of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, at King’s College London.

In this story


Professor of European & International Politics


Research Fellow

Professor Mauricio Avendano Pabon

Visiting Professor of Public Policy & Global Health

Ann Kelly

Professor of Anthropology & Global Health