Covid inquiry: Government lawyers sign £23m deals for document disclosure

Long-term contracts cover data from a range of specified departments
Credit: Jernej Furman/CC BY 2.0 Image has been edited

By Sam Trendall

29 Jun 2022

The Government Legal Department has signed two long-term deals cumulatively worth more than £20m for the storage and supply of three terabytes of files and more than 20,000 paper documents related to the UK public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic.

Valued at £11.8m, the slightly larger of the deals addresses the GLD’s need for e-disclosure services related to documents provided to the inquiry by the Department of Health and Social Care and the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and his deputies. This contract was awarded to specialist litigation support services company Legastat.

The second deal, worth £11.7m and won by Epiq Systems, covers documents provided to the by the Ministry of Justice, and the Departments for Education, Transport, and Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Both contracts came into effect on 25 May and respectively run until 31 May and 25 July 2027 – in each case with an option for two further 12-month extensions beyond that date.

The contract for DHSC and CMO documents – which is only one of the two published in full – includes an indicative timeline, outlining that the first week of the engagement will see data provided to the supplier. All information is expected to be classified at Official: Sensitive level – the lowest of the three levels of security classification.

The two weeks thereafter will be dedicated to processing documents and making them available to government’s legal team as digital or hard-copy files. A review stage is then due to last about six weeks, with lawyers acting on behalf of DHSC requiring 40 licences for remote-access review software, and a further 15 for the CMO. These licences will last until 2027.

The contract says: “The remote access solution proposed by suppliers must be compatible with  GLD’s ICT infrastructure, in particular the web browser; GLD uses Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome and the preferred supplier’s solution should be designed to facilitate connectivity from GLD offices. If any plug-ins are provided, they must support this GLD IT configuration.”

Concurrent with the commencement of the review stage will be the start of two years of rolling disclosure of documents, and four years of services related to requests for witness statements – which will begin once the first public hearings in 2023.

From 2024 to 2027, the two suppliers will be expected to support a “disclosure database to be maintained for [the] purpose of preparing witness evidence and generally preparing for hearings”.

The contract covers the provision of 60 hours of “strategic oversight, advice and support” by the supplier each month: 30 each for the DHSC and the CMO.

The health department is expected to provide about 2.5TB of electronic documents; a terabyte equates to a million megabytes. This will include “spreadsheets, emails, meeting minutes, policy documents, guidance, briefings, [and] submissions” according to the contract.

The DHSC will also require scanning and storage of about 20,000 paper documents – mostly “various handwritten notes”.

The CMO is expected to require processing and disclosure of about 500GB of electronic documents, and about 100 paper notes.

In addition to the GLD, the DHCS and the CMO will also receive counsel from law firms Pinsent Masons and TLT, respectively.

The draft terms of reference for the inquiry – including the use of data in key decision-making, and the efficacy of the NHS Test and Trace scheme – were published in March. Following a public consultation, inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett recommended expanding the scope of the probe to include consideration of the impact of the pandemic on children and young people and on the mental health and wellbeing of the population as a whole, as well as increasing the inquiry’s focus on collaboration between government, local authorities, and the third sector.

The ultimate aim of the exercise is to “examine the UK’s preparedness and response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and to learn lessons for the future”.

Sam Trendall is editor of PublicTechnology.net, on which this article first appeared.

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