It’s time for a public inquiry on the Covid-19 pandemic

When I retired from RTE just over a year ago, I wrote a column in this newspaper explaining the part the Covid-19 pandemic had played in my coming to that decision. I explained about the challenging impact the pandemic had on me and others in the media as we tried to cover the absolutely appalling events that unfolded around the country from March of 2020 right up to the day I left RTE News.

The main point of that article was not just to highlight again some of the shocking circumstances that led to hundreds of deaths in this country during that terrible time, but to call on the authorities here to set out a plan to investigate what went right – and what went very wrong during our state’s entire handling of the virus. In particular, I felt we needed to look into the cirumstances relating to those deaths that occurred while people were in the care of the state and private nursing centres.

My thoughts at that stage were first and foremostly with the relatives of the people who died in the pandemic (and they still are today). I think, in a subsequent radio interview, I admitted to being on the verge of depression some of those weeks when  reporting on the multiples deaths night after night on the TV News. It was a groundhog day-type nightmare that nobody would ever want to experience, but at the end of the day I was just a third party in all of this. One must still remember that for the people who had lost a mother or a father, a grandad or a granny – often someone who had been in relatively good health when the whole nightmare began – this was heartbreak day after day, an episode that will undoubtedly go down as one of the darkest days we have ever seen in the history of this state.

Hospital admissions

I am thinking in particular of people like the woman from County Laois who rang me repeatedly about the fate of her father in those terrible times. This was a man who went into a nursing care centre with no major physical ailments before the pandemic began, but who subsequently contracted Covid and died there. This poor woman used to be on the verge of tears on the phone to me as she spoke of her family’s repeated efforts to get that relatively young man out of the home where he was staying and into an acute hospital where he could receive intensive care treatment for the virus. The begging and heartbreaking phone calls were made by the family day after day as their Dad’s condition deteriorated – yet the hospital authorities said they were unable to admit the man into their emergency department because he had contracted the virus. The fear was obviously that, if he was admitted, he would then spread it to dozens of other people who were not sick in that hospital at the time.

I wrote in that article 12 months ago that I felt very strongly that a full independent legal inquiry was the only way to deal with cases like this (and other concerns) when the pandemic was over. Rather than spend millions of euro on barristers and lawyers looking at thousands of specific cases, it might be better to go and look at the hospitals and units where the highest level of fatalities actually occurred, and try and learn from the mistakes that were made there and throughout the state. This was so that, if – God forbid – we ever encounter another worldwide pandemic of this nature, we might have learned something from this horrible experience which could perhaps help us to save lives the next time.

In this country, that appeal of mine for a public inquiry seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears. After some initial talk about a tribunal, I haven’t heard any mention of such a move in months. Yet three months ago, across on the other side of the Irish Sea, the then British Prime Minister – the much-maligned Boris Johnson – set out the terms of reference for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry and appointed Baroness Heather Hallett as chair. She has now begun the process and is actually taking evidence in an inquiry that has already led to public consultation with over 20,000 people on what unfolded.

Cutting to the chase

In fairness to Baroness Hallet and our British neighbours, they seem to have cut to the chase and already got their priorities right as they set out on this fact-finding review of what happened. She said on day one that people who have suffered during the pandemic will be at the heart of the inquiry’s work and that the inquiry team is committed to listening to people’s experiences.

The chairperson has reinforced the strong position that the inquiry will be firmly independent and has already said publicly that she will not tolerate any attempt to mislead the inquiry, or to undermine its integrity or independence. If she encounters any such attempt she will make her views known in a public hearing and therefore publicly expose any third party bids by government or anyone else to try and twist the truth of what happened.

Interestingly, the British inquiry is not just going to focus on only the capital city or parliament area. The inquiry team has said they will travel around the UK to ensure they hear from as many people as possible, and Baroness Hallett has already told the BBC she is acutely aware that experiences were different in different care centres across the UK – as no doubt they would also have been here in Ireland – based on the number of fatalities one witnessed in each corner of the country.

Care centres

What I particularly like about the British inquiry is the clear focus they already have on where the key questions MUST be answered. The chairperson will have the discretion to explore issues in more depth as part of the inquiry’s scope. They have prioritised their investigation into the role of primary care settings such as general practice, the management of the pandemic in hospitals, including infection prevention and control, triage, critical care capacity, the discharge of patients, the controversial use of ‘Do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation’ (DNACPR) decisions, the approach to palliative care, workforce testing, changes to inspections, and the impact on staff and staffing levels.

All of these issues are absolutely critical here too and had an effect on the number of deaths in this country. I honestly believe that health care workers in all these areas will be the first group to come forward and put up their hand to testify about what happened so that they explain it from their unique point of view –   isolated and abandoned as they were behind the screens in care centres all over the country in those desperate days.

I believe it is absolutely essential that an Irish public inquiry MUST follow the lead of the UK model and examine the management of the pandemic in care homes and other care settings, including infection prevention and control, the transfer (and failure to transfer) of residents to or from homes, treatment and care of residents, restrictions on visiting, workforce testing and the controversial procurement and distribution of key equipment and supplies, including PPE and ventilators, and all those key areas where millions of euro were spent in a very short period.

It is still not too late for the state to stand up and admit that a public inquiry of this nature is badly needed. If this Government does not do it, I think the next one may well do so. It is the only way we will ever learn from what happened in this tragic era of our history.