WHAT are the Covid-19 inquiries for? The answer to this question might seem obvious. They’ve been established by the UK and Scottish Governments to look backwards and forwards, exploring the rights and wrongs of the recent pandemic, fearlessly exposing what went right in the official response, what went wrong, and who was responsible.

Public inquiries have the ­inevitably ­tendency towards accentuating the ­negative – but there’s also the more ­constructive side to their work. If and when a new public health threat menaces the ­country, it’s hoped this close scrutiny of public ­responses to coronavirus will give us a ­better chance of doing a better job of ­recognising, responding and containing it.

Inquiries are also sites of public attention, there to recognise the experience of the families unable to grieve together because of social restrictions, the chronic loneliness many endured and some did not recover from, the children haunted by the memory of the empty chairs beside their father’s ­hospital bed as he took his final breath alone, the bust business worker who fell through furlough or the healthcare worker doing their best despite the uncertainties, risks of infection, and lack of PPE.

The National: Three years on there are still more questions that answers about long Covid Image: Getty

So far, so noble, as aspirations go. The folk sifting through the evidence at both ­inquiries are clearly doing their best to bring moral and intellectual seriousness to it. But the record of translating these ­aspirations into significant change is poor – and I ­worry the way the Covid ­inquiries are already unfolding is guaranteed to play into the media’s natural inclination to turn ­every political story into a shallow ­pantomime.

Every public inquiry begins by ­intoning the solemn purpose of “learning the ­lessons” from whatever scandal caused them to be established – but their record of achieving that deep reflection and change is much more chequered. But the only reliable thing every judge-led inquiry has achieved is burning through oodles of public cash. Public inquiries are expensive, lengthy, ­frequently outlive public interest in the ­issue they’re exploring, and sometimes do more for the bank balances of the lawyers who sign on to work in them than the ­people whose lives have been directly ­affected by the issue under scrutiny.

Disappointment and a sense of ­being “let down” is often the emotion ­connected with the end of ­independent inquiries. There are diverse reasons for this. ­Campaigners demanding “a full judge-led inquiry” often don’t fully ­realise what they’re asking for – and don’t like what they get when politicians accede to their demands. Politicians setting them up often haven’t fully reasoned through the consequences either, and end up ­experiencing buyer’s remorse as they find themselves cited to appear and their ­personal archives dug through in public.

People calling for public inquiries ­generally know what they want the ­inquiry to find before it starts with strong views about where blame lies. But a ­legalistic process has its own logic and restrictions to it. Non-lawyers tend to be the biggest fans, thinking that judicial truth is the best truth going. Who better to marshal and review all the evidence than some of the best lawyers in the land? Experience has made me a bit more sceptical.

First, most of our senior judges began their careers at the Bar. Talk to advocates and barristers, and they’ll often reflect on how much they like being self-employed rather than being stuck in the office or a cog in a corporate machine. People who’ve spent their lives avoiding ­working alone are maybe not the best people to ­reflect on how complex organisations work or ­understanding what function and disfunction look like. True, ­judges have a lot of experience in handling ­complex evidence and weighing up what they hear from ­witnesses – but legal ­training doesn’t set you up with a sound ­understanding of public health policy, economics, or the contested, ­provisional and ­sometimes ­unfolding nature of ­scientific evidence, or political pressures where only ­judgement – rather than ­legal rules – can be ­exercised.

In the current context, there’s ­something curious about bringing the most ­determinedly unpolitical of the branches of the state in to review the ­inevitably ­politicised work of ­governments, and ­expecting legal lifers who are ­allergic to political decision-making to cast a knowing eye over how democratic ­decision making did or didn’t work.

Thus far, you could be forgiven for thinking the Covid inquiries are mainly a WhatsApp scrutiny device, collecting the best burns, bitching and backbiting from the clearly dysfunctional set of politicians, political advisers and civil servants at the centre of power in Whitehall.

Edinburgh’s successes, failures and ­indiscretions will presumably get their scrutiny in turn. We may yet find out if Nicola Sturgeon (below) described any of her ­cabinet colleagues in private ­correspondence as a fudgemuppet or ­finding out whether Jeane Freeman shared Boris Johnson’s notion that you can burn coronavirus out of the pipes by sticking a hairdryer up the nose.

The National: File photograph of former first minister Nicola Sturgeon

As entertaining and incidentally ­revealing as all this has been, the many “gotcha” moments and the spotlight that the press has consistently shone on them must be at risk of crowding out what the inquiries are actually for.

Watching the various Downing Street apparatchiks, party men and mandarins testifying over the last couple of weeks, I was reminded of all the ink that was spilt and all the breathless radio and TV reports which were filed from the ­Leveson Inquiry through 2011 and 2012.

Then, as now, a series of previously unknown barristers hit the big time and briefly became minor household names. Then, as now, embarrassing clips of ­examinations and cross-examinations were grabbed and shared. Then, as now, political reporters dutifully reported ­“remarkable scenes” and feigned ­surprise about the incestuous relationship ­between the media and politics were exposed.

And by the end of it? British public life was as incestuous as ever and the press was just as unregulated – but £5.4 ­million had been blown, a few politicians had been embarrassed, the feral press ­remained just as feral as it ever was, and some of the worst grifters in British ­public life were free to carry on grifting.

Is there much hope that the Covid ­Inquiry will take a different trajectory and achieve more? The lawyers to the inquiry are acquiring the status of minor legal ­celebrities, and clickbait-friendly news outlets have assembled fawning profiles of the main players. But the moralising tone over much of the private correspondence exposed by the inquiry has been ridiculously po-faced and only distracts us from what the process ought to be about.

Last weekend, one Scottish paper ­interviewed an unnamed ex-cabinet ­minister who explained the dark arts of how Scottish ministers avoid ­proper ­scrutiny. This shadowy figure explained that our ­politicians make use of such sinister ­devices as sending correspondence from personal email accounts, text messages from ­private phones, and even sometimes resort to the black arts of having a quiet word over a “cup of coffee”. This insight was ­presented by this anonymous ex-minister as a ­significant expose of cultures of secrecy in our politics.

I wonder, would you like your private messages about your colleagues and your frustrations with them to be read out on telly? Among the many problems assailing public life in the UK, the idea it is too sweary is laughably prim.

But in covering all this, there’s a much more palpable appetite for tittle-tattle and exposing mean DMs than anything more profound. There is no big, complex, structural problem we face which isn’t written up by the press as a game of personalities. There’s a much more palpable appetite for tittle-tattle and mean DMs than any more profound reflection on the weakness Covid-19 exposed in the British state and its official capacity to reckon with the existential threats it faces.

You’d think that would be more ­interesting – and more important – than who Dominic Cummings called a c***. And as far as the media are concerned, you’d be dead wrong.