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24 August 2020

278: The age of inquiry

As life starts to get back to usual, there will be a clear end to the idea that politics has not played a role during COVID-19. The ‘new normal’ of politics will be represented by a significant period of reflection and inquiries. What should you do to prepare?

The government has been keen throughout this time to say that they have been led by the scientific advice and the opposition parties have been careful and selective in their lines of attack. As we have seen in recent PMQ exchanges, we are already starting to shift back to usual politics and attacks on all sides. The recent decision by the government to abolish Public Health England and replace it with a new National Institute for Health Protection, headed by a Conservative Peer, is a clear demonstration that politics are very much involved.

But what type of political activity are we likely to see over the coming months? We are, I believe, about to enter an extended period of introspection, review and inquiry.

  • The public inquiry – whilst the Prime Minister has said that one is coming, its form, content, leadership etc have all still to be decided. The government will take the lead in deciding such matters and that makes it political. For instance, it is unlikely that the government would want the inquiry to report this side of a general election for fear of the findings / recommendations being too critical of its behaviour and decisions.
  • Select committees – in the meantime, parliament will be crawling over all aspects of COVID-19 activity and government decisions. There could well be overlap between many of these inquiries but the committees will try to unpick decisions, where support has been given and use the opportunity to call in Ministers and officials.
  • Other bodies – such as the National Audit Office, will start looking at specific areas of spending. But other regulatory bodies may start to hone in on the behaviour of sectors and individual firms as well. This obviously brings with it a whole different set of expectations and requirements for participation as opposed to the more political side.
  • The media – they will continue to be interested in stories related to the crisis, especially those who are suffering potentially because of government decisions.

Across organisations decisions will need to be made about, for instance:

  • the level of involvement in any of these processes (although the options are more limited if a regulator is involved);
  • statements that you may wish to provide externally and internally;
  • the preparation of those who may need to give evidence or appear in the media; and
  • the extent to which you want to proactively push for your issues to be considered.

But it is also worth a period of internal reflection as well to identify potential risks, especially if you are adopting a more proactive approach. Are you convinced and can you document, if necessary, the relevant decisions you took? No organisation should open itself up to unnecessary risk.

All this illustrates a more general issue for public affairs which is ensuring that other issues get some consideration during all these inquiries as well. In other words, if you are not COVID-19 related, how will you go about securing the time and attention your issues need? Any public affairs activity should be considering this head-on.

The political spotlight will remain on COVID-19 even long after a vaccine has (hopefully) been found and we all have to contend with that.

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