Covid public inquiry hearings ‘will not begin until 2023 at the earliest’

Revelation comes as inquiry chair puts draft terms of reference out to consultation
Side view of the National Covid Memorial Wall, which commemorates people who have died from Covid-19. Photo: Geoff Henson/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By Jim Dunton

11 Mar 2022

The former Court of Appeal judge appointed to chair the independent inquiry into the UK’s pandemic response has acknowledged that hearings for the wide-ranging probe will not commence until next year at the earliest.

Baroness Heather Hallett’s admission came in an open letter today, marking the publication of the draft terms of reference for the inquiry – now out to public consultation for four weeks.

The detailed two-page document was praised for its breadth and detail after it was published yesterday afternoon, balanced with caveats about the likelihood of the resulting inquiry being a long process.

In her letter, Hallett said the inquiry team – which includes former Ministry of Justice and Department for Education senior civil servant Ben Connah as its set-up director – had  been working hard on the groundwork for the wide-ranging probe so that it will be ready to begin investigations once the terms of reference have been agreed.

“We shall gather evidence throughout the year,” she said. “I hope to begin public hearings in 2023.”

She added: “I will do everything in my power to deliver recommendations as soon as possible to ensure that  in any future pandemic the suffering and hardship many of you have experienced is reduced or prevented.”

Last year, prime minister Boris Johnson was accused of trying to “kick the can down the road” by Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner when he announced that the independent inquiry would not begin until this year. Labour argued it should start as soon as possible.

The latest timescale for hearings makes it increasingly unlikely that the independent inquiry’s work will be complete before the next general election, which is supposed to be held no later than 2 May 2024, under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Although that legislation is due to be repealed, a full five-year term for the current government would only run until December 2024.

The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire in west London is still ongoing, nearly five years after the blaze that claimed 72 lives in June 2017. That process has been conducted in two phases, however – the first of which reported on the causes of the blaze and emergency services’ handling of the response. Its current phase is looking at wider issues that contributed to regulatory and construction-industry failings that were the backdrop to the disaster.

As of yesterday, 162,624 people in the UK have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. A total of 184,458 death certificates have been issued that mention Covid-19 as one of the causes.

Emma Norris, director of research at the Institute for Government, said there would be “understandable upset and disappointment” about the Covid public inquiry not starting hearings until next year.

“Setting up any inquiry is a very complex task. Especially for this inquiry, with its enormous scope and huge challenges on public engagement,” she said.

“But I think this news does make the case that the traditional approach to public inquiries should be supplemented with a much more rapid first stage – a fast review of anything that needs to change immediately.”

Terms of reference

The inquiry is committed to taking evidence from bereaved families and considering the experiences of health-and-care sector staff, as well as other key workers. It will also look at equalities issues “evident in the impact of the pandemic, and the state’s response”.

Last month, CSW revealed the Cabinet Office had retained a specialist communications agency to advise on the terms of reference and to ensure a consultation on the terms reaches a “broad representation of the UK population”.

The proposed terms of reference come under four broad headings: preparedness; the public health response; the response in the health-and-care sector; and the economic response.

Within those headings are 26 more detailed categories, including preparedness and resilience, the availability and use of data, testing and contact-tracing, the use of lockdowns, safeguarding of public funds and management of financial risk, and the way decisions were made and communicated.

The “economic response” category also proposes to investigate benefits, sick pay, and support for vulnerable people, as well as the operation of support schemes such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – also known as the furlough scheme – and the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.

The terms of reference also spell out the inquiry team’s intention to take a UK-wide approach, without duplicating the work of devolved-nations’ own inquiries, and the expectation that it will produce its report – and interim reports – in a “timely manner”.

The IfG’s Norris said the draft terms of reference’s mention of “interim reports” was positive because the over-arching remit was “huge”.

“One way to ensure timeliness and impact – whilst maintaining a wide scope – is to set out initial findings early on, particularly in areas where urgent change is required,” she said.

Norris said the wide scope of the inquiry meant Hallett needed a large team that could pursue different issues concurrently, as was the case with the Baha Mousa Inquiry and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

She added that the draft terms of reference’s emphasis on lessons to be learned was a welcome move, as “public inquiries don't lead to change as often as they should”. But Norris cautioned that identifying who would hold government to account for implementing lessons was a major issue.

Norris also noted that the fact that almost everyone in the UK had been affected by the pandemic made decisions on public engagement far more complex than usual for the inquiry team, but also especially important.

The consultation on the draft terms of reference is open until 7 April.

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