In May 2021, Boris Johnson announced that there would be a public inquiry into the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. When will it happen and how will it work?
In December 2021, former appeal court judge Baroness Heather Hallett was appointed as Chair of the inquiry set up to investigate the handling of Covid-19 in the UK. The Inquiry has also appointed eleven Queen’s Counsel (QCs) to join its legal team - the number and experience of which certainly reflects the mammoth task ahead.
A public inquiry by its very nature is designed to address matters of public concern. It does this by considering key questions, also known as the ‘terms of reference’. Whilst it has long been envisaged that a central focus of the Covid-19 Inquiry would be the Government’s preparedness and response to the pandemic, it was also obvious that its remit would be far-reaching. In March 2022, the terms of reference were published and so we now have a better understanding of how extensive the Inquiry will be.
The first aim of the Inquiry is 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.”
In addressing this point, the Inquiry will consider the decision making and consequences of central, devolved and local public health bodies. In particular, the Inquiry will look closely at issues including but not limited to:
- preparedness and resilience
- decision making processes, communication and implementation
- the availability and use of data and evidence
- legislative and regulatory control
- shielding and the protection of the clinically vulnerable
- use of lockdowns and other interventions
- testing and contact tracing
- housing and homelessness
- prisons and other places of detention
- the justice system
- travel and borders
- the safeguarding of public funds and the management of financial risk
The Inquiry will also specifically consider the response of the health and care sector across the UK and address a number of points, including:
- preparedness, initial capacity and the ability to increase capacity and resilience
- management of the pandemic in hospitals, including the consequences for non-Covid related conditions
- management of the pandemic in care homes and other care settings
- the procurement and distributions of key equipment and supplies such as PPE and ventilators
- the development and delivery of therapeutics and vaccines
In dealing with the first point, the Inquiry will also consider and report on the economic response to the pandemic and its impact by taking evidence in relation to government interventions, such as:
- support for businesses and jobs, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, loan schemes, business rates relief and grants
- additional funding for public services
- benefits and sick pay
Through hearing and reviewing evidence on these points, the Inquiry will tackle its second key task:
“To identify the lessons to be learned from the above, thereby to inform the UK’s preparations for future pandemics.”
In order to meet its aims, the Inquiry will:
- listen to the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered as a result of the pandemic ( N.B. the Inquiry will not investigate individual cases of harm or death in detail)
- highlight where lessons identified may be applicable to other civil emergencies
- consider the experiences and impact on health and care sector workers, as well as other key workers
- have reasonable regard to relevant international comparisons
- produce its report including any interim reports and recommendations in a timely manner
The above is an overview of the terms of reference, the full details of which can be found via the Gov.uk website
Given the scale of the Inquiry, there is likely to be a significant number of Core Participants - a term which, although not defined, is generally understood to refer to a person or organisation who will play a key role during the Inquiry process.
Core participants play an active role in the process and are permitted to make opening and closing statements as well as having sight of any evidence that relates to their involvement. Unlike witnesses, they are also permitted to ask questions and see copies of any draft and final report ahead of publication.
It is anticipated that categories of Core Participants in the Covid-19 Inquiry will include Government Departments (such as Treasury, Health and Social Care, Education), NHS Trusts, bereaved families, frontline workers and care home providers amongst others. There will also inevitably be many hundreds if not thousands of witnesses called upon to give evidence whether by way of statement or as part of the oral hearings when they begin.
It is the sheer scale of the Inquiry which makes it very likely that those operating within the health and social care sector may become involved - whether as a Core Participant or witness.
In fact, it may be that organisations wish to be designated as Core Participants. Such a move would mean that they not only benefit from the enhanced status around seeing evidence and asking questions, but would also afford them the opportunity to put forward their experiences of the pandemic and their suggestions as to what could or should have been done differently, in order to positively influence the Chair’s final report and recommendations.
To achieve such an objective - or indeed to minimise the risk of being criticised for their own approach to the pandemic - clients will need to be properly advised. This involves reviewing documents (both internal and those provided by the Inquiry), taking instructions and, where appropriate, drafting witness statements and preparing people for what they can expect at the public hearing, if called.
Markel Law’s regulatory team has considerable experience in representing organisations and individuals in public inquiries, such as the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Brook House Inquiry, the Hillsborough case and the Manchester Arena Inquiry.
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