Latest developments in the UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Following the conclusion of the Module 2 (core UK government decision making) evidential hearings on 14 December 2023, we reflect on the latest key developments and next steps for the Public Inquiry, including the key evidence heard in the Module 2 hearings, changes to the timetable and the nature of future investigations to be pursued by the Inquiry.
In our last article in this series, we reflected on the contention between the Inquiry itself and the Cabinet Office over the resistance to a Rule 9 request requiring disclosure of WhatsApp messages from Boris Johnson, among other key figures in Government during the pandemic, to Module 2 of the Inquiry. The hearings to which those WhatsApp messages were relevant have now concluded, and we learned a great deal from the proceedings which took place over October – December 2023.
Key evidence in Module 2
The evidential hearings for Module 2 opened on Tuesday 3 October 2023. The Module examined core political and administrative governance and decision-making in the UK during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. A series of shorter sub-modules (“2A-2C”) are now taking place focusing on discrete issues relating to decision-making in the devolved nations. The scope of the Module included, amongst many other areas, the initial response to the emergence of Covid-19 and decisions made with regards to non-pharmaceutical measures such as lockdowns.
Saunders Law, along with a Counsel team lead by Professor Leslie Thomas KC, represent the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations (FEMHO), a designated Core Participant in this Module.
The evidential hearings opened with statements from Lead Counsel to the Inquiry and Core Participants setting out the key areas of focus and concern for the investigation. Expert evidence followed, including evidence from Professor James Nazroo on the state of structural racism in the UK at the beginning of the pandemic. Individual members of Core Participant organisations also gave evidence on the impact that core political decision making had on their members. This included evidence from Ade Adeyemi MBE, joint secretary of FEMHO, on the topic of structural racism and the disproportionate rates of infection and death, along with wider disparate outcomes, experienced by minority ethnic healthcare workers and communities. Ade’s powerful evidence can be viewed here.
Over the following weeks the Inquiry heard from a range of witnesses from the world of medicine, public health science, behavioural science, epidemiology and virology. Many of these witnesses were SAGE members, and included Professor James Rubin, Professor Neil Ferguson, Professor Catherine Noakes and Professor John Edmunds. Much of the evidence shed light on the ways in which advice was researched and produced, the communication structures in place between SAGE and government, and the willingness of Government to take and enact scientific advice in their decisions.
Political witnesses, including a range of political advisors, private secretaries and top civil servants such as Martin Reynolds, Lee Cain, Helen McNamara, Dominic Cummings and Sir Christopher Wormald then took the stand. Their evidence focused on the structures in place around decision making, the functioning of Government during the pandemic, the effectiveness of their leadership and that of others, and the impact that this had on public safety.
We then heard directly from key decision-makers such as Justin Tomlinson, the former minister of state for disabled people, health and work; Priti Patel, former home secretary; Kemi Badenoch, former minister of state for equalities, Michael Gove, former chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster; Dominic Raab, former foreign secretary and deputy Prime Minister; Matt Hancock, former health secretary; Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the exchequer and current Prime Minister; and Boris Johnson, the former prime minister. Counsel to the Inquiry and a range of Core Participant representatives questioned these political leaders in depth regarding their decision-making and effectiveness in office.
Mayors from across England were called to comment on the Government’s response to the pandemic and how it affected their own regions, including Andy Burnham of Manchester; Sadiq Khan of London; and Steve Rotheram of Liverpool. Similar issues on how UK decision-making was experienced at a local level are now being examined in respect of the devolved nations via sub-modules 2A-2C.
Crucially, evidence was also heard from key health figures instrumental in the Government’s response to the pandemic and in its decision-making processes and outcomes. These witnesses included Professor Sir Chris Whitty, Professor Dame Jenny Harries, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Professor Dame Angela McLean. Counsel to the Inquiry and a number of Core Participant organisations again questioned each of these witnesses on the efficacy of their own work during this period, and were able to shed light on vulnerabilities in the public health apparatus in the UK.
Oral closing statements were heard across the last two days of hearings, concluding on 14 December 2023. Core Participants’ oral closing statements set out their view of the evidence given over the preceding 9 weeks, in conjunction with the documentary evidence disclosed during the course of the Module, and the conclusions and in some instances recommendations that they believe the Chair of the Inquiry should draw from the evidence heard. These submissions were then followed up with detailed written closing statements. These submissions, along with the many witness statements and full array of documentary evidence gathered by this Module of the Inquiry, will inform the Chair’s final report for this Module, which is scheduled for release towards the end of 2024.
Next steps for the Inquiry
The Inquiry had planned to proceed non-sequentially to Module 4 next, which will examine and make recommendations relating to the development and roll out of Covid-19 vaccines across the UK (including issues in relation to unequal uptake of the vaccine between identifiable groups and concerns relating to vaccine safety and the UK Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme) and issues relating to therapeutics (both existing and new medications developed for the purpose of treating Covid).
Hearings had been due to take place in the summer of 2024, however the Chair announced on 10 January that this will no longer be the case and the hearings will be postponed until a future date (as yet unconfirmed). The Chair explained that this timetable change is necessary in order to enable organisations involved in the Inquiry to prioritise responding to requests for information and thus ensure the timely disclosure of evidence for Module 3 (which will examine the impact of the pandemic on the functioning of healthcare systems in the UK). The evidential hearings for Module 3 are still currently scheduled to begin in the Autumn of 2024.
Module 5 will examine and make recommendations regarding the procurement and distribution processes for key healthcare equipment and supplies in place in the UK during the pandemic (including PPE, ventilators and oxygen). The first Preliminary Hearing was held on 6 February 2024 and evidential hearings are expected to take place in 2025.
There is currently one more active Module in the Inquiry: Module 6, which will focus on the impact of the pandemic on the publicly and privately funded adult social care sector in the UK. The investigation is expected to include an examination of the impact of government decision making on those living and working within the care sector, the capacity of the sector to respond to the pandemic and issues relating to infection control within care settings. Core Participants for this Module have not yet been announced, but more information on the Module and a date for its preliminary hearing is expected in the coming months.
The Chair has indicated that further modules will cover a number of “system” and “impact” issues including health inequalities, the test and trace system; and the impact of Covid-19 on education, children & young people; business and finance in the UK; and other public services. Whilst the detail of these future modules is expected to be confirmed in the coming months the Chair has committed to an ambitious timetable, with an aim of concluding all evidential hearings by the end of Summer 2026.
Saunders Law is proud to represent FEMHO in Modules 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the Inquiry, and the Covid-19 Airborne Transmission Alliance (CATA) in Module 3. Further Preliminary Hearings are scheduled to take place for Modules 3 and 4 on 10 April 2024 and 22 May 2024 respectively.
We currently represent Core Participants in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Infected Blood Inquiry and the Undercover Policing Inquiry and can offer legal assistance and representation in all public inquiry cases. Please contact us on 0207 632 4300 or fill in our online enquiry form if you would like our assistance and we would be happy to discuss your matter with you.