Power, accountability and the pandemic: lessons learned from scrutinising government and corporate responses to Covid-19

As the UK Covid-19 Inquiry examines the UK’s response to the pandemic, our Power and Accountability committee met with four JRCT-funded organisations to discuss their work in response to the pandemic.

The Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG), Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Centre for Health & the Public Interest (CHPI), and STOPAIDS all received funding from JRCT’s Power and Accountability committee to support their work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Each organisation shared their experience of holding the government and corporations to account for systemic inequalities, injustices or abuses of power linked to their responses to the pandemic, and the steps needed to drive meaningful change for the future.



Voluntary Organisations Disability Group (VODG)

VODG established the Commission on COVID-19, Ableism and Racism, led by disabled people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. The Commission’s work culminated in a powerful report A spotlight on injustice , which highlighted how racism and ableism worsened health outcomes for disabled, racialised people.

At the committee learning session, Kamran Mallick, CEO of Disability Rights UK, who chaired the Commission,  and Sarah Woodhouse, head of policy and influencing at VODG, told of how sixty per cent of deaths were of disabled people.

“It was really clear throughout the pandemic, as well as after, that the decisions being made were impacting people in very different ways… we made a decision to focus on the intersections between disability, race and ethnicity”, said Sarah.

The pandemic had shone a light on inequalities, and exacerbated them, highlighting structural weaknesses in the system, said Kamran. These systems need to be co-designed with disabled people, based on an understanding of how disabled people structure their lives; disability people-led organisations are vital in addressing the unique challenges faced by disabled people.


COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice

Led by and for those who lost loved ones due to the pandemic, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice have been integral to ensuring their voices are heard. Having initially sought funding to support a volunteer-run campaign for a statutory public inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic, they now work to ensure continuous support for bereaved families and that their voices are heard at the inquiry, emphasising the importance of accountability and lessons learned.

Clara Collingwood and Jack Rodgers, campaign managers, described a lack of preparedness for the pandemic, and a need for greater transparency in how the scientific community gives information to government to allow for accountability.

The conversation drew parallels between the pandemic and the climate crisis. “We need to build resilience and make sure that public services are able to scale up to lots of different kinds of threats,” said Clara. “The climate crisis is going to take huge tolls on our civil liberties in the same way that the pandemic did. We need a programme of scientific literacy, and radical transparency in the way that scientific advice is given to ministers.”


Centre for Health & the Public Interest (CHPI)

CHPI reviewed procurement of services from the private sector during the pandemic and the longer-term impact of Covid-19 on health and social care in the UK. They emphasised the need for lessons to be learned and advocate for transparency and public accountability in healthcare, especially as for-profit provision grows.

David Rowland, director, and Sid Ryan, researcher, discussed how changes made to the NHS prior to the pandemic had resulted in a weakened system, with many health and social care services now contracted out. This made services less accountable, and made the system unable to respond to threats, they said.

Describing a gradual “hollowing out” of the state, David said, “We had a civil service that was extremely depleted with huge amounts of contracting out. When an emergency hit, people in government tried to pull the lever to ensure that everything went into place… and there was almost nothing at the other end of that lever”.



Focusing on pharmaceutical and government relations during the pandemic, STOPAIDS said a lack of transparency has hindered positive public health outcomes. Trade secrets and intellectual property rights in the pharma industry served to block information sharing which could have increased access to vaccines globally.

Molly Pugh-Jones, advocacy officer, and Saoirse Fitzpatrick, advocacy manager, spoke about the reports STOPAIDS had written which examined the issues at both UK and EU level; these looked at conflicts of interest between government and industry, and how the pharmaceutical industry evaded public scrutiny.

A lack of transparency of information prevented generic manufacturing of vaccines worldwide, and vaccine contracts were “heavily redacted and un-transparent”, Molly said. “We found that there was a real block of public access to pieces of information around how vaccines were being bought, at what prices, and specifications around manufacturing.”


Key insights and lessons learned

Speakers noted the inadequacy of the state's response due to under-resourcing and the contracting out of critical services.

Each organisation told of their ongoing efforts to drive change by influencing the ongoing public inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic, as well as their work to advocate for more transparency around the relationship between government, industry, and the scientific community.

Change could be more likely as the pandemic so starkly revealed the need for local governments and essential services to be better funded and supported. There are promising opportunities for change such as an increasing allyship between groups due to the shared experience of the pandemic, including between disabled people’s groups and others on collective demands.

- Our Power and Accountability committee funded work which scrutinised the responses and policies of powerful institutions to the pandemic. You can read more about the programme here.