Hindsight is, of course, easy but, still, we should have known.
We should have realised that when Lord Brodie opened his public inquiry into the construction issues that have blighted not one but two supposedly flagship hospitals on Monday, it would be merely a trailer not the main event.
It is after all only a year since the inquiry was announced by Health Secretary Jeane Freeman and only three years since contamination linked to ventilation systems at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, in Glasgow, was blamed for the deaths of patients. An inquiry in Scotland hearing evidence in just three years? It seemed too good to be true. Sadly, predictably, it was.
Lord Brodie says he will try to hear some evidence within a year. He certainly hopes so but, you know, it might take a little longer. It is, after all, so dreadfully complicated.
It is not only the judge who is waiting to discover how hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on hospitals, which, in some fairly fundamental ways, were not fit for purpose. The families of patients, many of them children, caught up in the contamination scandal at the QEUH are also waiting to discover why. By the time the inquiry reports, their wait may have stretched to five, six, seven years? Shamefully, that is not unusual in Scotland, where families coping with terrible and inexplicable loss are asked to bear terrible and inexplicable delays in finding truth and justice.
When deaths occur that demand explanation, initial inquiries are almost always conducted by the Crown Office and, almost always, lead to years of silence as the wheels of justice grind slower and slower until they stop turning altogether. There is no urgency, no sense that victims and their families must be the absolute focus of these inquiries, not officials, lawyers and all the others.
No decent person can believe the current delays are acceptable but our politicians and public servants seem powerless to oil the wheels of a system that grows more intractable every year. A leading lawyer tells us today he fears the Crown simply does not have the expertise or resource to cope with major, complex investigations.
That is worrying at any time. When already overloaded Crown officials have just been tasked with investigating deaths in Scotland’s care homes, potentially the country’s biggest investigation, it is alarming.
More widely, there is still no word of an inquiry into how ministers at Holryood and Westminster responded to the looming threat of Covid in the critical weeks of February and March. The lessons of that inquiry will be crucial in how we respond the next time because, if the second wave – or peak after peak of the same terrible wave – has not yet hit, it almost certainly will.
Given Scotland’s sclerotic institutions, the apparent paralysis of public servants and the seeming disinterest of ministers, those lessons will not even be discussed, never mind learned, before our leaders are tested once more. That will be regrettable.
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