If ‘now is not the time’ to commit to a coronavirus inquiry, then when? | Nesrine Malik | Opinion

As calls mount for an inquiry into the government’s coronavirus response, the answer we hear is: now is not the time. When Dominic Raab was asked last week if the government would commit to holding a public inquiry, he resorted to the impatient language of priorities. “When we get through this crisis,” he huffed, only then will it be “important to take stock”.

Here’s what we already know. The government delayed implementing a lockdown for no clear reason – perhaps it was the prime minister’s outsized regard for the “freedom-loving instincts of the British people”, or a misguided bid to pursue “herd immunity” – and then reversed its position. Weeks were wasted, and thousands of lives were lost. The government abruptly stopped its contact-tracing programme in mid-March; it claimed mass testing wasn’t necessary, and then U-turned while repeatedly shifting the goalposts on the number of tests to be done. It did not provide adequate levels of PPE for NHS and care home staff, and hundreds of workers are dying. This government’s Conservative predecessors underfunded the NHS and undermined the UK’s preparedness for a major crisis such as a pandemic.

These are the facts. But this moment is a reminder that facts do not speak for themselves. Because here’s another fact: the government is immensely popular. Even as new polls hint at growing concern over specific aspects of the response – with a majority now critical of the government’s handling of testing – there is still widespread approval of the government’s overall handling of the crisis.

There’s no point sneering at these numbers: governments around the world have seen a rise in their ratings, as the view that “we’re all in it together” rallies populations behind their leaders. Especially when we are actually physically all in it together, locked down and bereaved. Here, of course, even the prime minister has not been spared by the virus – and the image of an ailing leader, overworking himself into intensive care, might alone soften calls for an inquiry into his government’s failings.

Should we expect more outrage than we have seen so far? The UK death toll, which looks likely to end up as the highest in Europe, does not equally affect all sections of society, and it hasn’t spread evenly across the country. Obviously anyone can catch the virus, but there are disparities of race, class and geography. For some, these deaths are still distant statistics: a YouGov poll conducted last week reported that 41% of respondents said that they were not scared of contracting the virus.

Separately, there is a reluctance to “shout at the pilot in mid-air” – a form of deference that will ensure that as long as the plane is still in the air, the government’s ratings will also continue to defy gravity, no matter how poorly its flight path was chosen. And it doesn’t hurt the pilot’s cause that much of the in-flight entertainment is dedicated to repeating his team’s claims about how well they’re doing.

For all that the facts look damning for the government, the overall picture presented to the public has not been notable for its scrutiny and scepticism. This is not a swipe at an amorphous “media” failing to hold the government to account. Many journalists are probing and investigating – and getting flak for doing so. But much of the press has either stenographically taken the government’s word for things, or relegated the awkward matter of our appalling death toll to a mere footnote amid other concerns about life under lockdown. Last week, The Sun had a front-page splash that read “Lockdown blow. Pubs shut until Xmas”. On a small image of a Covid-19 virus splodge on the same page, it said “596 dead. See page 4”. Other papers, such as the Daily Telegraph, have effectively become mouthpieces for the government.

In the end, the facts alone will not determine how this government is judged. It is an axiom of liberal thinking that with enough debate and discussion, the truth will eventually win out – that in the marketplace of ideas, the truest arguments eventually prevail over the loudest or most popular. But there is no discourse that is immune to the workings of power. And for now, this is still a powerful government: from the size of its majority to the circulation of its loyal partisan press. It has been the beneficiary of a stilted press briefing format that prevents follow-up questions, and it had the good luck to face a defeated opposition leader whose criticism of the government was largely ignored.

The new occupant of that chair, Keir Starmer, has had a good start on challenging the government for its technical failures. But he has also succumbed to the faulty premise that “now is not the time” – resisting calls for an independent inquiry because the “priority” is that the government “fixes the current mistakes it is making”. As the picture of who is going to take the blame starts to come into focus, the question is not simply how to secure a future inquiry. If we do not prepare the ground for it now, we will find that by the time the moment for “taking stock” finally arrives, there will be little appetite for real accountability. When it’s all over, we will hear that there’s no point in fixing blame; instead we will “learn lessons” for the future.

This is the problem with “now is not the time”; it ensures that the time for accountability will never arrive.

Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

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