What do we know about the COVID-19 Public Inquiry so far?
The aim of this inquiry is to establish the facts of, and learn lessons from, the strategic response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom.
In May 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that a Public Inquiry (“the Inquiry”) into the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic would take place. In December 2021 the first step of this process, the appointment of a Chair, was taken. Whilst news of the Inquiry has dimmed, some important further steps have been taken since.
Appointment of a chair to the inquiry
The Right Honourable Baroness Heather Hallett was appointed as Chair of the Inquiry on 15 December 2021, setting aside her role as Chair of the Salisbury Novichok Public Inquiry. Baroness Hallett has an esteemed CV; she was the first woman to Chair the Bar Council and served as a High Court Judge for 14 years. She acted as Coroner for the inquests of the victims of the 7/7 London Bombings and chaired the Iraq Fatality Investigations. The Baroness is also a cross party life peer and recently appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs.
Appointment of counsel to the inquiry
Hugo Keith QC has been instructed as Lead Counsel to the Inquiry and it is expected that he will be supported by a large national team of QCs and junior Counsel. Hugo Keith QC is a very well-regarded QC who has been instructed on high profile matters over the years, including representing the Queen at the inquest into Princess Diana’s death and as Lead Counsel for the Coroner in the 7/7 London bombings.
Terms of reference
Whilst the UK Government are yet to release any Terms of Reference, the Scottish Terms of Reference were released on 14 December 2021 and are outlined below:
- The aim of this inquiry is to establish the facts of, and learn lessons from, the strategic response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom.
- To investigate the strategic elements of the handling of the pandemic relating to:
- pandemic planning and exercises carried out by the Scottish Government;
- the decision to lockdown and apply other restrictions;
- the delivery of a system of testing, outbreak management and self-isolation;
- the design and delivery of a vaccination strategy;
- the supply, distribution and use of Personal Protective Equipment;
- the requirement for shielding and associated assistance programmes, provided or supported by public agencies;
- in care and nursing homes: the transfer of residents to or from homes, treatment and care of residents, restrictions on visiting, infection prevention and control, and inspections;
- the provision of healthcare services, including the management and support of staff;
- the delivery of end of life care and the use of DNACPR (do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation decisions);
- welfare assistance programmes, for example those relating to benefits or the provision of food, provided or supported by public agencies;
- the delivery of education and certification; and
- financial support and guidance given to businesses and the self-employed, including in relation to identification of keyworkers by public agencies.
- To create a factual record of the key strategic elements of the handling of the pandemic.
- To identify lessons and implications for any future plans and provide recommendations.
- To provide reports to the Scottish Ministers as soon as practicable.
- When interpreting and applying these terms of reference:
- in relation to points 2(b) to 2(l), investigations will cover the period between 1 January 2020 and 31 December 2022;
- the Inquiry will, as the Chair deems appropriate and necessary, consider the impacts of the strategic elements of handling of the pandemic on the exercise of Convention rights (as defined in Section 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998);
- the Inquiry can consider only “Scottish matters” as defined in section 28(5) of the Inquiries Act 2005;
- the Inquiry respects the independent role of the Lord Advocate in relation to the prosecution of crime and the investigation of deaths in Scotland; and
- the Inquiry must make reasonable efforts to minimise duplication of investigation, evidence gathering and reporting with any other public inquiry established under the Inquiries Act 2005
It can be surmised that any Terms of Reference introduced by the UK Government will be similar but are likely to go further. For example, the provision of PPE in high risk economic and employment sectors is likely to be a key part of the national Public Inquiry.
Approach to inquiry
Whilst the ambit of the Inquiry remains unknown, two key aspects to the approach seem to be crystallising:
- First, it will be modular, to make the huge challenge of conducting such a wide Inquiry more manageable by breaking down the Terms of Reference and conducting many smaller inquiries. This approach has been adopted, with success, in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
- Second, the hearings will be held nationwide with public hearings taking place in different locations across the nation. This approach was adopted by previous Inquiries such as the Infected Blood Inquiry.
In the near future we expect to see further steps taken in the progression of the national Inquiry, the most likely next steps being:
- the appointment of expert panel members to support the work of the Chair;
- the publication of draft Terms of Reference;
- the official confirmation of the Solicitors appointed for the Inquiry; and
- the launch of an official website for the Inquiry, following in the vein of other recent Public Inquiries.
While we wait for the Government to launch the Inquiry, the report of the People’s Covid Inquiry was released in December 2021. This Inquiry was chaired by Michael Mansfield QC and whilst the Government were invited to participate, no response was received. Both this Inquiry report and that of the Scottish Government following their Inquiry will certainly be an interesting basis for comparison to the UK’s future Inquiry.
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