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The eventual coronavirus inquiry will be Grenfell writ large

Paul Finch
  • 4 Comments

After the pandemic is over, our political leaders will be held to account for their dithering and buck-passing, writes Paul Finch

Back in the dim and distant, Roy Landau, head of the Architectural Association’s graduate school, managed to persuade the two great experts on the construction of the dome of St Peter’s, Rome, to attend the same conference. It was intended to resolve the question of whether or not formwork had been used. By definition, this question could not be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, but it was an intriguing event.

I had forgotten all about it until the current coronavirus crisis brought the idea of ‘experts’ back into the spotlight. This was partly to beat up the government in general, and Michael Gove in particular, because of their scepticism during the Brexit campaign (remember that?) about what experts were predicting about the economy.

Suddenly there was Boris, flanked by his official experts, telling us what we should do, based on the independent advice being given to government by health chiefs and boffins from Imperial College. This sounded to me like buck-passing, in the sense that in any national crisis, decisions that need to be taken are the province of elected politicians. They may take advice from experts, but in the end the decisions are political.

As we have already seen, and in line with that dispute about St Peter’s, there is a problem about experts, which is that they do not necessarily agree with each other. Moreover, because they are expert in one field, it does not make them expert in the potential consequences of their advice. Who frames the question to be asked?

This has become particularly acute in relation to protection of health service workers, and indeed any workers engaged with the public at large, covering sectors such as transport, supermarkets and (thank goodness!) off-licences, the latter regarded as essential to the nation’s sanity, if not health.

In respect of this, the prime minister has been surprisingly dithery. As a biographer of Churchill, he is clearly familiar with the history of Dunkirk and the entirely political decision to send out the flotilla of small boats to rescue a trapped army. (Incidentally, if the Today programme had been around in 1940 there would have been no such decision necessary, because we would have already given up the fight and Halifax would have been in charge. Discuss.)

For trapped army, read health service staff. It appears that centralised decision-makers could not get their minds around the psychological implications of asking the health troops to go into war unarmed. Churchill would have completely understood this and demanded ‘action this day’, instead of waiting for weeks to bring in independent testing laboratories and chemical producers.

One cannot underestimate the pressure and difficulties the decision-makers face

One cannot underestimate the pressure and difficulties the decision-makers face, and it is too easy for armchair critics (like me) to take pot-shots at the politicians making the tough calls. But it is not unreasonable to criticise the framing of the challenges to be resolved, which is a matter for prime minister and cabinet, not experts (some of them squabblesome and attention-grabbing) who are on hand to advise, not decide.

There will be time enough to review the sequence of judgements and decisions from the start of this crisis, once it is over. This will be another version of the Grenfell Tower inquiry, where experts abound, all subject to cross-examination by that other group of experts – barristers paid to represent client interests, not to establish the truth as such. That is the task that falls, in the case of Grenfell, to a former judge who has done an extraordinarily good job so far.

His equivalent will be required once the present ghastliness has passed. It is going to be equally uncomfortable.

  • 4 Comments

Readers' comments (4)

  • It was the turn of the Health Secretary - Matt Hancock - to front this evening's government update on the virus emergency.
    Despite surfacing rather quickly from his bout with it, he gave a markedly clearer and more believable account of the situation than had either Michael Gove or Boris Johnson on previous evenings, and to me this didn't so much reflect any great improvement in our circumstances as match the relative credibility and integrity of these three politicians during the general election - and the manoeuvring and campaigning that preceded it.

    We need decision makers that we can trust, and believe in - at present it seems that we don't have enough of these, and they might prove difficult to find; we have a prime minister who seems to fancy himself as a latter-day Churchill - but he's not, no matter how much he fancies himself, and to call him a ditherer is giving him the benefit of the doubt.

    ps - garden centres should have the same status as off-licences.

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  • I remember when people were touting David Bentley as the new David Beckham. Turns out that he was crap in comparison.

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  • Industry Professional

    I am not Boris' biggest fan but I wonder if the emphasis on expert advice was because restricting people's freedom goes against his ideals and also because people might be more likely to follow advice that came from scientists as well as from politicians. Many people of the UK can be a pretty stubborn and independent bunch.

    I do accept that there are media experts and then there are real experts (the latter with fewer if any personal agendas).

    Jeffrey, a civil engineer - comment made via the IHS

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  • Procrastination can have advantages, but that is not the issue here, as the UK government chose to delay when clear evidence abounded to show the right course of action. That was incompetence at best and ideology at worst. We came very close to another military analogy, that of the charge of the light brigade, and choosing the wrong valley. A blunder that ironically enhanced the reputation of British cavalry but not its commanders. A disease pandemic is not the realm of political decisions, but of those with the relevant expertise and knowledge.

    Equally we must also question the other military analogy being bandied around, that of Dunkirk and why the British Expeditionary Force survived? The German’s did not push home their advantage and advance on the ground or exploit their air superiority. The BEF should have been annihilated if swift military decisions by experts were made, but it seems that political ones were made. Ultimately the Germans lost the war. Nuremberg should be the style of review that the UK government face, rather than Grenfell.

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