Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.
One of the most quoted maxims in medicine is “first, do no harm”. In effect, it means that the patient should not be left in a worse condition following treatment than they would have been if there had been no treatment at all. For all sorts of reasons, are clear echoes of this in our approach to Covid-19.
As we deal with the consequences of the pandemic, we must ensure that the measures we are introducing do not inflict more damage on our long-term well-being than the virus itself. All around the world, governments are struggling to maintain balance as they walk the policy tight rope, with public health pulling in one direction and economic necessity pulling in the other. All of them find themselves confronted with a series of options but no clear solutions.
Our own Government is no different, as it tries to limit the damage to the health of the population and the NHS with the current lockdown – before moving back to the tier system on 2nd December, whilst trying to keep enough of the economy going to fund vital public services and infrastructure for the future.
In many ways, it is a “no win” for the Government, with calls for both stricter lockdown and greater civil liberties being made with equal ferocity. The latest opinion poll shows that 20 per cent of the population believe that the Government has overreacted to the Covid19 emergency, 43 per cent that it has underreacted and that 31 per cent believe that the response has been proportionate.
Problems with track and trace are cited by those who are determined to show that policy has been inadequate, while conveniently overlooking the fact that, across the channel, the French had to introduce a new track and trace system because of the failure of their initial model. Meanwhile, in Germany, track and trace efforts had become completely swamped, leaving the origin of three quarters of infections a mystery.
Others point to the mistaken use (or misuse) of NHS data as evidence of their assertion that the threat to healthcare capacity has been overblown to justify a second national lockdown. If the public’s confusion is understandable, what clarification is Parliament able to give through its powers of scrutiny?
The answer is that it is limited and, I believe, inadequate. At the moment, Parliament is unable to hold the Government properly to account, because it is unable to access the full range of data on which decisions by the executive are made.
Despite the best efforts of the Speaker and his team, the House of Commons cannot possibly discharge its role of scrutiny by a series of question and answer sessions on ministerial statements that lack the rigour which comes with proper parliamentary debate.
To properly assess the overall response to the pandemic, we need to ensure that we are able to monitor the “treatment” that the UK is receiving, looking across the whole range of issues from public health to social well-being to economic viability. Our current select committee structure allows proper interrogation of the response at departmental level but lacks the crosscutting oversight necessary.
In response to the UK banking scandal in 2012, the government established The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. It was, in David Cameron’s words, “a full parliamentary committee of inquiry involving both Houses”, with a clear mandate, a senior and experienced membership and cross-party support it was, and was seen to be, rigorous and independent. We should follow that example now.
There are other reasons why such a structure is necessary. The first is that the credibility of the government’s assertion that it is basing its response on “the science” is wearing thin to many and will be sorely tested if the situation continues, or worsens, through the winter and into 2021.
This particular difficulty is exacerbated by the over-exuberance generated in some quarters, where news of progress with a vaccine has been wrongly interpreted to mean that an end to the coronavirus is nigh. The Prime Minister was exactly right to try to dampen this down immediately as it is likely to create an increased risk appetite to the virus, without justification, in an understandably frustrated public. It would be to everyone’s advantage (including the government) if it was clear to the British people that not only “the science” but all other relevant information sets were being independently assessed.
The second reason why such a structure is important is that this will not be the last pandemic that we face. They are the rule in human history not the exception. In recent years, we saw the coronavirus manifest itself in SARS and MERS which, thankfully, were relatively limited and short lived. Covid19 is widespread but not particularly lethal in the history of human pandemics.
In an era of globalisation, where widespread human interaction is necessary (and where before the outbreak around 700,000 passengers were in the air around the world at any one moment) the likelihood is that we could potentially face worst scenarios. We need to be prepared with a blueprint that can be put into effect quickly and to develop global protocols to prevent the piecemeal, delayed and sometimes shambolic global response that we have witnessed on this occasion.
At home, we need our Parliament to be able to credibly assert that it has examined all the evidence, medical and economic, on which policy is being determined. This is crucial in maintaining the political consensus and public confidence needed to see off the naysayers, the cynics, and the political opportunists. To do no harm we need more information, more transparency and more scrutiny. And we need it urgently.