Covid inquiry core participants too narrow and weighted towards groups that favour lockdowns, MPs told

The Pandemic Response and Recovery All-Party Parliamentary Group has heard from the former Children’s Commissioner for England and head of UK Hospitality of their growing concerns about the impartiality of the Covid-19 Inquiry. In particular, the composition of core participants for Module 2 which examines the decision-making by the UK Government during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Anne Longfield, CBE, the Children’s Commissioner England from 2015-2021 and current chair of the independent Commission On Young Lives, who was unable to join the meeting but passed on these comments to the Group: "From the start I, and others, have been concerned that children haven’t been in the spotlight for this Inquiry. They weren’t mentioned in the original Terms of Reference and there was a focus much more on institutions, but it’s really important to look at individuals.

"We’ve had two modules announced so far and children aren’t explicitly involved and we don’t know when, or if, they will come up. I think questions need to be asked about children, some of the harms could have been avoided last time and certainly they could be avoided in future. We just need to look at other countries to see how they continued to educate and support their children throughout."

Kate Nicholls, OBE, CEO of UK Hospitality spoke of her concerns for the hospitality industry: “We applied for core participant status in Modules 1 and 2 and did everything the Inquiry asked of us in terms of gathering a broad group of interested parties together and we were still rejected. We were told there will be later modules that look at the impact on hospitality but it leaves me with concerns that the industry may not get a sufficient or timely enough hearing. Equally concerning is the timeline and the likelihood that the modules that concern our sector, which is a significant employer and was one of the worst affected, are unlikely to take place until 2024 or 5, when it is now that we need to examine the evidence used to justify many of the government measures, understand the impact and how we can do things differently in the future.

“With my experience as Chief Executive of UK Hospitality, I would argue that it would be quite hard to find someone better placed to give an insight into discussions with government in early 2020 as decisions were being taken prior to lockdown. We are concerned that, by setting a high bar on participation in the decision making process, the Inquiry is unwittingly discouraging a broader perspective which could bring greater balance and scope to the testimony that will be heard.”

The Group’s Chair, Esther McVey, said in response to the briefing: “During the pandemic we were not able to debate key decisions that were taken. The Covid-19 Inquiry is a crucial opportunity to scrutinise and question whether the measures and decisions taken were the right ones. The evidence on covid and the impact of the policies has grown and with it our knowledge and understanding, particularly on lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions, but the Inquiry does not seem to reflect the need to address how damaging much of the government’s pandemic policy has been. Looking at the core participants, it seems the Inquiry’s position is that lockdowns work and that the benefits outweigh the harms; there are many eminent experts who dispute this.

“It is right that Module 2 includes groups representing those bereaved or impacted by covid, but where are those families that suffered or were bereaved due to the avoidable impact of lockdowns? We are missing representation of individuals, groups and UK industries that opposed or were dramatically affected by lockdowns. I signed the recent letter to Baroness Hallett, along with colleagues, highlighting that it is critical a diverse range of views and perspectives on the pandemic response are considered, otherwise there is a serious risk that the Inquiry could overlook vital lessons.”

Arabella Skinner has campaigned with children’s charity UsforThem, whose Module 2 core participant application was declined: “The composition of core participants appears to be weighted towards a presumption that the government’s pandemic policy was successful, with little representation from those adversely affected by the collateral damage. Of very great concern, more so in light of Matt Hancock’s Pandemic Diaries’ revelations, is the extent to which political influence rather than medical reasons dictated decisions which led to mask wearing in class from August 2020.

“The UK Covid Inquiry has an opportunity to ask questions such as how was an unorthodox and damaging public health policy of this magnitude, which the Government’s own guidance excluded, allowed to be overturned for fear of political one-upmanship, despite the known risk of harms and the limited benefits? And why was the only risk assessment of what was such a damaging and unevidenced intervention for our children’s health and well-being, undertaken 17 months after masks were first imposed?”

Listening to the speakers, Co-Chair Graham Stringer said: “At the start of the pandemic, there were unknowns but despite all the evidence to the contrary there seems increasingly to be a presumption among those that favoured lockdowns that they were necessary and did not work only because they did not happen sooner and harder.

“Based on what the Group has heard, I am increasingly concerned that the Covid-19 Inquiry will simply endorse those and other presumptions, rather than hear from both sides of the debate. I urge the Inquiry to look at the real world evidence and ask difficult questions about why pandemic policies, which recommended against lockdowns and most of the Government’s measures, were discarded.”

Biographies of the experts:

Anne Longfield, CBE, Chair Commission on Young Lives

Anne has spent the last three decades working to improve the life chances of children, particularly the most vulnerable. From March 2015 to February 2021, she was Children’s Commissioner for England. She previously led a national children’s charity and has also worked on the delivery of the Sure Start programme in the Cabinet Office. Anne is a passionate champion for children, influencing and shaping the national debate and policy agenda for children and their families. She spent many years campaigning for better childcare, often at a time when many saw the issue as obscure or niche. As Children’s Commissioner, Anne spent six years championing the rights and interests of children with those in power who make decisions about children’s lives, acting as children’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the corridors of power in Whitehall and Westminster. Anne is also Special Advisor to the Lords Public Services Committee on their inquiry into public services and vulnerable children and is the Independent Chair of the NHS Children and Young People Learning Disability and Autism Board.

Kate Nicholls, OBE, CEO UK Hospitality

Kate has been CEO of UKHospitality, the powerful voice representing the broad hospitality sector, since its inception in 2018, having previously worked as CEO and Strategic Affairs Director of the ALMR, the trade body for eating & drinking out businesses. Kate is Chair of the Tourism Alliance and co-Chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board, representing the needs of the wider tourism sector in discussions with the Government and the Mayor of London. She sits on the Government’s Hospitality, Tourism and Food & Drink Sector Councils and has previously Chaired the Mayor of London Night-time Commission as well as a member of the Mayor’s Covid Recovery Forum. In July 2021, she was appointed as the first Government Disability Ambassador for hospitality, promoting inclusivity. She is Chair of Liverpool ACC, on the board of several industry standards schemes and a trustee of industry charities. Kate initially worked as a researcher in the House of Commons and European Parliament on food, employment and environmental policy before joining Whitbread to work in Strategic Affairs. She has extensive experience as a political and strategic communications consultant and is a graduate of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and King's College London.

Arabella Skinner, Director UsforThem

During the pandemic, Arabella and UsforThem campaigned tirelessly to encourage the Government to put children at the front and centre of policy decisions affecting them. The group took on battles where other children’s charities and advocates remained silent - fighting for schools to reopen, the removal of unevidenced restrictions in schools and communities and probing for further information on the Covid-19 vaccine’s safety and efficacy for children. UsForThem will continue to campaign for children to be prioritised and their rights as a generation to be taken seriously by the Government, media and other influencers, taking up causes which seriously impact children’s wellbeing from the Early Years through to University and not only working to reverse the negative effects of the pandemic on children and young people, but to ensure children are set up to flourish and prosper.

Before joining UsForThem, Arabella had recently completed her masters in Psychology, after spending her career in business and brand strategy with organisations such as the BBC and Unilever. Arabella is a qualified FA football coach, and Club Secretary, and it was her experience with her, then, U11 football team in Autumn 2020 that led her to start campaigning with UsForThem.

View the full minutes for this meeting, held on Monday 12 December 2022.

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