Learn lessons, save lives: why we need a statutory public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic

In the first of a series of articles, Rose Ireland, Ben Curtis and Isabel Gregory discuss why there are renewed calls for a public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic and what such an inquiry may cover.

The news this week has been dominated by reports regarding the increasing pressure the Government is under to announce a statutory public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, almost one year since the country first went into lockdown.

Back in July 2020, Boris Johnson indicated that there would be an independent inquiry into “what happened” but did not state when this would take place – simply that it was not “the right moment” at that time. Yesterday Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, stated that it would be “premature” to launch an Inquiry now because the pandemic is ongoing and the focus right now should instead be on reopening the economy.

Why are there renewed calls for a statutory public inquiry?

This has been prompted in part by a poll by the Guardian which found that 47% of people were in support of a formal independent investigation while only 18% opposed the idea. In addition, senior doctors, nurses, bereaved families, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, government scientific advisers and Lord Kerslake - a former head of the civil service - have reiterated calls for a public inquiry.

Broadly, calls for a public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic are driven by a need to learn lessons for the future, to understand what went wrong, and for those in authority to be seen to be held to account for their decisions.

Those advocating for an Inquiry, such as Lobby Akinnola who lost his father to coronavirus and is a member of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, argue that this is a matter of life and death and as such these lessons should be learned now, and that to delay would be “reckless, negligent and dangerous”. The Inquiry could start with a rapid review phase so that recommendations could be made and changes implemented as soon as possible while the pandemic is ongoing, so that further loss of life is minimised.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice sent a final pre-action letter before claim on 17 March 2021 informing the Government that if they do not take action to initiate a statutory public inquiry, they will bring legal proceedings to secure one. In the letter, they outline why a public inquiry is imperative now without delay: how the effects of the pandemic are likely to continue for a long time and lessons should be learned swiftly, that the bereaved are entitled to an official investigation into the deaths of their loved ones and the extent to which policy decisions were effective or ineffective, and the potential for loss of vital evidence by the destruction and deletion of records and the fading of memories.

According to Government data, as of 16 March 2021, 146,487 people have died with Covid-19. This makes the UK’s death toll the highest in Europe and one of the highest in the world. In addition, in the past year the United Kingdom has faced intermittent lockdowns and constant restrictions on liberty. The future remains uncertain but continued economic instability and an increase in unemployment seem likely. This makes the subject of an Inquiry important not only for bereaved families and frontline staff, but also the public as a whole.

Whilst the pandemic has affected the whole country, it has had a disproportionate impact on some groups. For example, the Office for National Statistics has released data which shows that the coronavirus pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Most minority ethnic groups have a higher coronavirus mortality rate relative to the white population, and some ethnic groups have been hit worse financially. In the early months of the pandemic, hospital fatalities of those with Bangladeshi ethnicity were twice those of the white population, the death toll of those with Pakistani ethnicity was 2.9 times as high and the death toll of those with black African ethnicity was 3.7 times as high. Further investigation is needed to determine why there has been such a disproportionate impact on minority communities, but it appears to relate predominantly to structural socioeconomic inequalities - issues of housing, work and life circumstance - as opposed to any biological factor.

As stated by the Chairman of the British Medical Association Dr Chaand Nagpaul:

We have seen suffering at levels people have not experienced… We have seen livelihoods lost and inequalities exacerbated to levels that have devastated communities. Putting all that together, of course it demands an inquiry”.

What would an Inquiry cover?

The scope of a public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic could potentially be huge due to the scale and multi-faceted nature of the crisis. The scope of an Inquiry is determined by its terms of reference. Since no Inquiry has been set up, the scope is currently unclear, but the terms of reference are likely to prove controversial and some may call for them to be the subject of public consultation.

A public inquiry could investigate the following issues:

  1. What happened? Establishing the facts and providing an authoritative account of what happened, including the actions of public bodies and government officials.
  2. How prepared were the Government for a pandemic? The Government were at the very least aware of the possibility of a pandemic – it has been flagged on the National Risk Register for years. The Inquiry could seek to establish what steps the Government took, if any, to prepare for a pandemic, including the funding of research, lessons learned from previous pandemics and how it responded to previous exercises which assessed the Government’s readiness to respond to a pandemic.
  3. How did the Government manage the crisis? Examples of issues which could be explored include but are not limited to:
    1. When and what did the Government know in the early stages of the pandemic when it was first confined to China?
    2. Did the first and second lockdowns come too late? Should the Government have relaxed restrictions before Christmas? One thinktank has estimated that delaying the second lockdown caused up to 27,000 extra deaths in England.
    3. What priorities were behind Government decisions at each stage of the pandemic? How were competing priorities managed?
    4. How were Covid-related contracts procured? For example, the National Audit Office is amongst those who have criticised the Government for the fact that companies with political connections had a greater chance of success in winning PPE contracts.
    5. How successful was the test and trace system?
    6. How was scientific data and advice obtained and to what extent was it followed?
    7. Were the border restrictions introduced by the Government effective and should they have been introduced sooner?
    8. How effective was the Government’s communication of guidance and information to the public?
    9. What legislation and regulations were passed, how were they passed and what impact did they have on civil liberties?
  4. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on certain groups, including but not limited to:
    1. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on persons from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, including whether the Government’s response indirectly discriminated against those communities.
    2. The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on people with disabilities, with an Office for National Statistics survey suggesting that people with a disability accounted for nearly 60% of coronavirus deaths in England.
    3. The handling of the coronavirus pandemic in relation to the social care sector specifically, with a large proportion of deaths occurring in care homes. Funding for the social care sector was stretched prior to the pandemic and an Inquiry may consider the impact this had.
    4. The roll-out of PPE for frontline workers and policies relating to the safety of frontline workers more generally.
    5. The impact of coronavirus on the health service and hospital patients.
  5. What lessons can be learnt and what changes can be implemented to ensure that the country is better prepared for a similar event in future?

Covid Inquiry series

Saunders Law supports calls for an independent statutory public inquiry. We encourage you to sign this petition.

This is the first in a series of articles by the Inquiries team at Saunders Law on the prospect of a public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.

We have also written an article on imprisonment during the pandemic and coronavirus in prisons.

Saunders Law currently represents core participants in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, Infected Blood Inquiry and Undercover Policing Inquiry. If you've been affected by any of the issues raised above, our inquiries team led by Cyrilia Davies Knight are available on 020 7632 4300 or Make an Enquiry and we will contact you.


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