Britain’s public Covid-19 inquiry, led by the retired judge Heather Hallett, is far from the first independent commission in the world to begin examining a country’s experience confronting the pandemic.
Their formats, mandates – and their progress – vary widely according to systems and traditions, but their task is essentially the same: to assess preparedness, make a record of decision-making, review government responses and learn lessons for the future.
Sweden was among the earliest to launch its Covid commission, which – led by a retired head of the country’s supreme administrative court, Mats Melin – produced interim reports in 2020 and 2021 and a final 1,700-page report in February 2022.
Set up by the government under pressure from parliament, the commission concluded that Sweden’s broad policy was “fundamentally correct” but that it should have shut venues and taken other, tougher measures earlier in the pandemic.
The Scandinavian country polarised opinion at home and abroad by choosing not to follow most of the rest of the world in ordering lockdowns, adopting instead a largely voluntary approach of promoting social distancing and good hygiene.
The approach meant “citizens retained more of their personal freedom than in many other countries”, the report said, noting additionally that several countries that did impose strict lockdowns had “significantly worse outcomes” than Sweden.
But it criticised decisions not to close restaurants and shopping centres even briefly, and said it was “remarkable” that it took until 29 March for indoor events to be limited to 50 people. An interim report was highly critical of elderly care early in the crisis.
The panel of eight experts, including professors of economics and political science and a vicar, heard evidence behind closed doors from about 100 witnesses.
In some countries, criminal proceedings are also under way. France’s court of justice of the republic (CJR), which investigates and judges ministers accused of criminal offences in office, received thousands of public complaints alleging government negligence.
The country’s top appeals court in January threw out a formal charge against the former health minister Agnès Buzyn, but she, her successor, Olivier Véran, and the former prime minister Édouard Philippe remain under various stages of investigation.
Criticised by some as inappropriate, the investigation revolves around the key questions now being asked in many countries: were ministers prepared, and did their policy U-turns – such as on masks and lockdowns – reflect evolving scientific knowledge, or political shortcomings?
Besides the criminal investigation, at least three parliamentary inquiries have been held in France. A senate report in December 2020 echoed the findings of two lower house inquiries, pinpointing multiple failings in pandemic preparedness and strategy.
Partly in response to the criticism, the government last summer set up a permanent 18-member commission charged with “monitoring, anticipating and preventing public health risks” (Covars). It held its first formal meeting in September.
Politicians in Italy also face possible prosecution, with the former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the former health minister Roberto Speranza and 17 others under investigation over the government’s initial response to the pandemic.
The investigation was launched by prosecutors in Bergamo, the Lombardy province hit hardest during the first wave of the virus, and follows a preliminary inquiry that began in mid-2020 and was driven mainly by relatives of Covid-19 victims.
The judicial inquiry focuses on authorities’ alleged failure to save an estimated 4,000 lives in Bergamo by quarantining affected towns earlier, and the absence of an up-to-date national pandemic plan, with the current version dating back to 2006.
Somewhat more belatedly, Italy’s new parliament in April finally passed the necessary texts to establish a full parliamentary commission of inquiry into the – now previous – government’s handling of the pandemic, focusing on the crucial early phase.
In the US, a bipartisan group of senators was recently reported to be trying to revive efforts for a national Covid-19 commission along the lines of the 9/11 investigation, looking at the origins of the virus and national and state readiness and response.
The commission would have investigatory powers and issue recommendations for future pandemics, but attempts to legislate for it have reportedly been held up by partisan disagreements and a lack of support from the Biden administration.
A wide range of congressional committees with different mandates are investigating different aspects of the Covid crisis, but hearings have been marred by partisan arguments over where the virus came from and the effectiveness of distancing measures.
Some countries have yet to get even that far. German MPs last month overwhelmingly rejected a demand by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party for a commission to investigate “the behaviour of the federal government and subsidiary authorities … with regard to measures against Covid”.
The far-right party particularly wanted to know whether what it called “massive interventions in the fundamental rights of citizens and Germany’s economic life” were “actually suitable, necessary and appropriate” compared with measures in other countries.
A corruption investigation is under way in Bavaria, though, into allegations that some regional conservative politicians earned large sums in commissions on contracts for masks struck by the regional government during the first wave of the pandemic.
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