Covid Inquiry’s Terms of Reference-Full Fact's response
The Covid Inquiry’s Terms of Reference should include how decision making by individual members of the public was supported during the pandemic.
The UK’s Covid-19 Inquiry has been established to examine the preparedness and response to the pandemic and to learn lessons for the future.
To give people the opportunity to provide views on how the Inquiry should go about its work, and what issues it should look at, there has been a consultation on the Inquiry’s draft Terms of Reference.
Here are Full Fact's views
Full Fact welcomes the forthcoming Inquiry but we believe that, when it comes to looking at the role of information in the pandemic, the terms of reference must be widened beyond considering how official decisions were communicated, and the availability and use of data and evidence.
In our submission to the consultation on the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference we recommended adding to the terms of reference: "how decision making by individual members of the public was supported." Understanding the information environment is necessary (1) to tell the factual story of what happened, (2) to understand the lessons to learn for future pandemics, and (3) to understand the disparate impact of the pandemic on different groups.
In a pandemic every single person is a decision maker.
Each of our decisions about vaccination, how we work, how we socialise, and what precautions we take, affect our own health and livelihoods and other people's.
Collectively our individual choices have been a crucial aspect of the response to the pandemic. At times people acted more cautiously than official advice, and at other times people acted less cautiously. People in different communities or contexts often behaved differently. Simply telling the story of official decisions will not properly inform the lessons learned exercise.
The information environment during the pandemic was critically important. And because it is more fragmented and complex than it used to be, there will be new lessons from this pandemic that will be vital for public health generally as well as for future pandemics.
We have seen 92% of people choose to get at least one vaccine dose while also seeing significant numbers of people angrily protesting or just rejecting official advice. Many people have shared with us their stories of how bad information has affected people they love, their relationships, and their mental health. The eventual high vaccine take up against the background of early caution from the public was partly the result of deliberate choices, not just by government, but by those who shape the information environment, including businesses like internet companies. No account of the pandemic can be complete without understanding these factors.
Moreover, our experience, both in our own work and advising the UK Government on its response, shows that understanding different information environments will be essential to understanding the disparate experiences of different communities during the pandemic. This ranges from the uncertainty experienced by many pregnant women, to the international flows of misinformation affecting immigrant communities. Unequal health outcomes are strongly connected to unequal knowledge and trust, and ultimately can only be understood by understanding that everybody is a decision maker during a pandemic.
Information services—and on the other side of what the World Health Organisation has called the infodemic of misinformation—shaped the pandemic experience and outcomes.
Full Fact worked with academics, civil society organisations, government, international partners, internet companies, media organisations, professional bodies, and regulators to ensure people had the information they wanted to make up their minds on life-saving choices during the pandemic. Our work gave us an overview of information quality during the pandemic. We are confident that this necessary aspect of the inquiry could be dealt with practically and manageably, and we would be happy to assist the inquiry team in considering how to approach it.
We are grateful for the Inquiry and the Chair's clear commitment to listening to the public - but it should not just be as people affected, but as real decision makers who all had a part in shaping what happened.
This is perhaps even more true in an international hub like the UK. 100 million people enter and leave the UK in any given year, far more than the total population of the UK. Unlike some other countries, the UK never had the option of simply relying on central government decisions to isolate the country. Everybody's choices were vital.
If you have any questions about Full Fact’s submission, please email email@example.com