Six months since inception — what do we know about the COVID-19 Public Inquiry so far?
The Inquiry has continued to stride forward; what has happened so far?
In May 2021 Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that a Public Inquiry into the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic would take place. In December 2021, the first step of this process was taken with the appointment of the Right Honourable Baroness Heather Hallett as Chair to the Inquiry. In January 2022, we reported on the early formative steps taken by the Inquiry. Only six months later, the Inquiry has continued to stride forward, with the process now officially underway. What has happened in the interim?
Consultation on and confirmation of the Terms of Reference
Draft Terms of Reference were published on 10 March 2022, and at the same time, the Chair formally commenced a consultation with the public on the draft Terms. The Chair met over 150 bereaved families and sufferers of ‘long Covid’ and considered 20,000 written responses received during the consultation process. To reflect the findings of that process, the Chair proposed extended Terms of Reference to the Prime Minister on 12 May 2022. On 28 June 2022, the Prime Minister formally confirmed the Chair’s extended Terms of Reference, and in so doing, the setting up of the Inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 officially commenced.
Breadth of the Terms of Reference
The finalised Terms of Reference require a detailed review and careful consideration by all organisations. The drafting approach adopted is simple and effective, with the Terms of Reference posing just two objectives:
- To examine the COVID-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and produce a factual narrative account.
- To identify the lessons to be learned from the above, thereby to inform the UK's preparation for future pandemics.
The scope of the Inquiry’s remit is ascertained by digesting the 37 different areas which the Terms of Reference have specified that the Inquiry will investigate, each one being a matter sufficient for a Public Inquiry in its own right. The 37 areas are split broadly into three sections:
- The public health response across the whole of the UK, including decisions taken at central, devolved, regional and local government level.
- The response of the health and care sector across the UK, including decisions around palliative care and the use of DNACPR Orders, infection prevention control in hospitals and care settings, and the management of patients in care homes and other care settings.
- The economic response to the pandemic and its impact, including Government interventions.
The consultation process significantly broadened the areas underpinning the first objective, with notable additions including the management of the pandemic via initial contact through 111 and 999 services, the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the population and the role of primary care settings such as general practice. The specification of the areas under investigation is a helpful indicator for all organisations to assess the risk of involvement in the Inquiry, whether from the duty to furnish relevant materials through to the participation as Core Participants.
The Chair's statement of intent
To mark the formal confirmation of the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference and the official start of the Inquiry, the Chair released a video on 28 June 2022 setting out seven promises which she made to the bereaved families during the consultation process, and which she has now expressed in public:
- People who have suffered during the pandemic will be at the heart of the Inquiry’s work. The Inquiry team is committed to listening to people’s experiences. With the scale of the suffering experienced during the pandemic, the Chair will seek to achieve this promise by commencing a Listening Project in autumn 2022, to enable the bereaved and affected to share their experiences.
- The Inquiry will be firmly independent, and the Chair will not tolerate any attempt to mislead the Inquiry, to undermine its integrity or its independence. If she encounters any such attempt, she will make her views known in a public hearing.
- The Chair will do everything in her power to conduct a fair, balanced and thorough Inquiry.
- The Chair will deliver any recommendations as soon as possible by producing interim reports. The aim is to reduce or prevent the suffering and hardship in any future pandemic, by establishing learning arising from the Covid-19 pandemic as expeditiously as possible.
- The Inquiry will not only be in London. The Inquiry team will travel around the UK to ensure they hear from as many people as possible. In so doing, the Chair understands that the pandemic affected the entire country, and is acutely aware that both experiences and the impact of the pandemic were different across the UK.
- The Inquiry will be conducted openly. The Inquiry team will publish regular reports on their website so that everyone can know what progress has been made. Whilst not specifically mentioned, the Inquiry is likely to record all hearings and utilise a YouTube channel. We can expect that evidential hearings relating to high-level central government decisions will be on mainstream media such as BBC Parliament or news channels.
- The Inquiry will be conducted efficiently and as speedily as possible.
Formulation of the Inquiry legal team
The Terms of Reference are broad; the Chair’s statement of intent is ambitious. Achieving a timely yet thorough investigation of such broad Terms of Reference across a pandemic that endured across the country for many months will be a significant challenge. The Chair is clearly cognisant of the scale of the challenge, demonstrated most vividly by the work undertaken to mobilise an army of barristers to undertake the Inquiry’s work. On 4 May 2022 11 further Queen’s Counsel were appointed to join lead counsel Hugo Keith QC on the Inquiry’s legal team, followed by the appointment of 49 junior counsel to the Inquiry’s legal team. The 60-strong team of barristers appointed to progress the work of the Chair provides the resources, and a fighting chance, for the Chair to deliver on her promises.
What to expect next?
The Inquiry has begun the planning and preparatory stage, with an ambitious target of commencing evidential hearings by 2023. The level of activity within the Chair’s team will already be high. As those appointed to the Inquiry Legal Team continue to conclude their existing professional commitments over forthcoming months, activity levels will accelerate.
Expect the arduous process of discovery and disclosure to begin in earnest. The message from the Chair and the wording on the official Covid-19 Inquiry website is clear – the gathering and assessment of evidence will begin ‘very soon’. Ensure you are fully prepared for extensive disclosure requests with demanding timescales for service of relevant materials.
Public Inquiries are investigative juggernauts. Once momentum is established by the Inquiry team, the process will gather at pace and the importance of the Inquiry maintaining momentum, with the ambitious timescales set in mind, will mean that recipients of disclosure requests will be held to account if they are adjudged to be causing a risk of compromise to the wheels of progress.
It is crucial that organisations are prepared for the ongoing process of the national COVID-19 Public Inquiry. Our team of inquiry specialists have extensive experience in this area and are here to help organisations navigate through the demands that may be faced throughout largescale public inquiries. To contact our team or to find out more about their expertise and the notable cases they've worked on, visit our Public Inquiries page.