The lack of impact assessments on the COVID-19 measures implemented throughout the pandemic means we may not know their true effects until it is too late, writes Jim McConalogue.

When we look carefully at the text of the government's new Covid-19 regulations that ensure those responsible for organising events take action to ensure that they do not admit people unless the person concerned has been fully vaccinated or has tested negative for coronavirus within the last 48 hours, it specifically says "No impact assessment has been prepared for these Regulations."

Again, when we look to the regulations totting up the list of places where face coverings must be worn, it says "No impact assessment has been prepared for these Regulations." If anyone tuned in to the parliamentary debate last Tuesday, it seemed MPs themselves seemed completely unclear as to whether impact assessments had or had not been issued by government. It is a question at the centre of why 99 Conservative MPs voted against the government over Covid passes.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has altered and restricted the way we live our lives, essentially informing us who we could and could not have physical contact with, closing schools, or making face masks a legal requirement. These rules have never been placed on citizens before, yet impact assessments, including those that apply to Plan B regulations, have remained few and tend only to be made after policies have been implemented, if at all.

As I describe in my report, 'Unravelling the Covid State', published by Civitas this week, an understanding of the impact of policies is a core aspect of our structure of democratic governance. The importance of studying the 'balance of harms' in relation to Plan B restrictions is exposed in recent evidence from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, showing a considerable increase of around 20,823 additional deaths in England and Wales in the past four months, compared with the average for the same period in the five years up to 2019.1 Of those fatalities, 45 per cent (9,292 deaths) did not involve coronavirus, while 11,531 were linked. While health authorities might well expect a higher mortality rate at this time of year, one critical line of investigation is that those with treatable conditions who put off hospital treatment appointments during the period of the severest restrictions are now dying from those conditions or other related circumstances. An understanding of balance of harms can tell us much about this outcome.

However, one defining feature of pandemic decision-making has been the reduced role of impact assessments or larger cost-benefit analyses. These have been disproportionately downgraded to the extent that no sufficient impact assessment (pre- or post-policy) has been conducted on the various health and nonpharmaceutical interventions. At the core of regulatory impact is the need for the state to answer to the public and parliament in order to acquire democratic legitimacy and accountability, which is currently lacking.

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An awareness of impacts might have enabled a business and economic assessment of the best options. Impact assessments enable the government to assess the wider economic, trade and investment implications of the preferred option from the analysis ? including impacts on potential trading for different business sectors affected. We know from multiple parliamentary select committee reports have routinely called for government to perform a cost-benefit analysis on their policies.

In the worst case, with the dismissal of impact research, or evidence such as the above ONS research, it will become clearer to government that previous lockdowns and forthcoming Plan B restrictions themselves may well end up costing lives, by pushing suffering into the future, and will likely cause immense economic, social and non-Covid health damage over the long-term.

The ambition of improved cost-benefit analyses could be achieved by bringing forward a new Public Health Act ? as leading legal voices and MPs have suggested ? to enable government to provide evidence for the proportionality of future lockdowns. A piece of legislation which requires ministers to evaluate the benefits and harms of draft restrictions by reporting on its impact on health, education and the economy would rebalance the public understanding of why such regulations are needed ? if at all. Such legislation could also be tied into giving MPs the power in the House of Commons to vote on regular, amendable motions.

Much of our commitment to democracy equates to us holding on to a shared set of transparent and accountable processes and procedures which can easily be recognised by citizens. This includes ensuring impacts of policies on people can lead to amendment or better policies. But if we do not have these procedures, or give them up for some grander state-sanctioned vision for society, then, over the long term, the grounds for claiming we live in a parliamentary democracy wear thin.

Dr Jim McConalogue is the incoming director of Civitas (from January 2022) and author of The British Constitution Resettled: Parliamentary Sovereignty Before and After Brexit (Palgrave Macmillan 2019) and Rebalancing the British Constitution: The future for human rights law (Civitas 2020).

 

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