The Irish Times view on the Covid Inquiry: learning the lessons

Establishing a pandemic inquiry is not an easy task, but it is vital to assess what was done right and where mistakes were made

The Government’s commitment to establish an inquiry into the State’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is welcome and timely. A “Covid-style response” has become a by-word for addressing public policy challenges in a way that overcomes bureaucracies and inertia. Certainly, it was an extraordinary mobilisation of the entire resources of the State, with the participation of wider society, to one end.

A full historical record of this period, which impacted the lives of citizens like no preceding crisis, should be collected. A critical examination of what occurred is also vital. This is important not only because of the ongoing threat of zoonotic disease, but due to what has been termed the “polycrisis” – a rolling series of shocks which require an active role for the State.

Designing an inquiry will be tricky. The selection of an appropriate chair and drafting terms of reference are key. It must occur in public – it must not just be done, but it must be seen to be done – and must publicly address the collective trauma and legacy of the pandemic. It must not descend into a media circus, constructing heroes and villains. But it must ensure accountability for decisions. And its conclusions should provide a framework for responding to crises.

The Government argues that Ireland had a good pandemic, when measured by excess deaths. This may be the case, but the virus still took a huge toll, notably infecting thousands of vulnerable people in nursing homes, many of whom died. This raises questions about regulation of this sector and its infection control protocols. Many nursing homes did amazing work, but there are lessons to be learned, too.


Society bought in to the Covid-19 response – to a remarkable extent, in hindsight. But there is still a lot to be considered. The suspension of democratic norms, the railroading of parliament, the curtailment of civil liberties and the criminalisation of everyday behaviours were all seen as necessary. But a calm look at the big calls is now needed. These elements of the “Covid-style response” cannot become part of any normal crisis toolkit.

The Irish response was society-wide, but decisions were largely taken by a select few. People acted in good faith, often at great personal cost. However, the system for managing the disease, developed on an ad-hoc basis and relying on the advices of a technocratic group, was not an ideal model and led to tensions in the system. There is now, following an intervention from Prof Martin Cormican, one of Nphet’s members, a new focus on whether the policies were an over-correction.

The State must show capacity to plan for and engage with crisis. It must prepare for a future where the costs of managing crisis are understood and appropriately balanced. That should be the real policy legacy of Covid and the inquiry must be the start of that process.