What did we learn from the official launch of the Covid-19 Public Inquiry?
“Those who have suffered the most want to know if anything could have been done to prevent or reduce their suffering and that is why this Inquiry has been established.”
The official launch of the UK Covid-19 Public Inquiry took place yesterday morning, with Baroness Hallett delivering an opening statement live online to a number of invited guests. A video of this statement, along with a detailed launch document, were published on the inquiry website shortly thereafter.
Baroness Hallett made plain her recognition that she is embarking on leading a “substantial task”. After all, there is not a single person living in the UK who has not been affected by the pandemic in some way and the investigation she leads is therefore likely to make history as the most wide-reaching public inquiry ever undertaken in the UK.
As highlighted in our last article in this series, whilst the Inquiry’s terms of reference (which were finalised and published on 28 June 2022) may only span 3 pages they provide for a potentially huge range of issues to be examined and explored. The question of just how broad a remit Baroness Hallett will pursue, and who will be allowed to participate in the inquiry, have been key questions and areas of much interest and speculation which yesterday’s official launch statement went some way to answering.
What did we learn about how Baroness Hallett intends to run the inquiry?
- The Inquiry will have a modular structure, with different teams investigating and preparing the evidence in parallel across the UK and Baroness Hallett conducting the public hearings for each module in succession.
- The first three modules of the inquiry will start this year with preliminary hearings and evidence gathering taking place before substantive public hearings are commenced in “late Spring 2023”.
- Baroness Hallett “will not hesitate” to make her views clear about “any person or organisation who stands in the way of the Inquiry performing its task” and will be “ruthless” in keeping the focus on the key issues. Nor will she be waiting on the Prime Minister to appoint her two promised panel members to press on with the work at hand.
- A “listening exercise” will be launched later this year to give everyone the opportunity to have their voice, and the impacts they have felt, heard. Key themes arising from this exercise will be highlighted in reports (though none of the accounts heard will be investigated).
- Groups of experts will be appointed by the inquiry and they will be expected to produce joint reports setting out areas of agreement and disagreement between them.
- International research will be reviewed as well as UK-focused data to help understand our preparedness and response. The inquiry team will commission its own research where it considers new academic analysis is required.
- “Regular reports” will be produced focusing on “key analysis, findings and recommendations”. The implementation of any recommendations made will be monitored by her team during the lifetime of the inquiry.
- The inquiry team will “try to find a way to commemorate those whom we have lost in the most respectful and appropriate way possible.”
What about the scope of what will be investigated?
- Baroness Hallett reiterated her commitment to keeping the examination of inequalities at the heart of her investigation.
- Module 1 will examine “the extent to which the risk of a Coronavirus pandemic was properly identified and planned for and whether the UK was ready for that eventuality”. In doing so it will:
- look at the UK’s preparedness for whole-system civil emergencies including resourcing, risk management systems and pandemic readiness;
- scrutinise government decision-making relating to planning; and
- seek to identify lessons from earlier incidents and simulations as well as international comparisons.
- Module 2 will examine “core political and administrative governance and decision-making for the UK” firstly at a UK-wide level and then for each devolved nation. In doing so it will cover:
- the initial UK response and Central Government decision-making (including political and civil service performance and the effectiveness of its relationships with devolved governments, local authorities and voluntary & community sectors;
- decision-making on non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g. lockdowns, restrictions on daily life and other requirements); and
- the use of scientific expertise, data collection and modelling, government and public health communications, behavioural science, messaging and public confidence as well as Parliamentary oversight and regulatory control.
- Module 3 will examine “the impact of Covid, and of the governmental and societal responses to it, on healthcare systems generally and on patients, hospital and other healthcare workers and staff”. In doing so it will look at:
- healthcare systems and governance;
- hospitals and primary care facilities (including GPs and dentists);
- the impact on NHS backlogs and “non-Covid” treatments;
- the effects on healthcare provision of the vaccination programme; and
- Long-Covid diagnosis and support.
- Further information on the rest of the inquiry’s modules will be published “in coming months” but as an indication they are said to cover the following topics:
- therapeutics and anti-viral treatments;
- the care sector;
- Government procurement and PPE;
- testing and tracing;
- Government business and financial responses across the UK; and
- Specific impacts on:
- business sectors;
- health inequalities;
- education, children and young persons; and
- public services and public sectors.
What about who will be allowed to participate in the Inquiry?
- Anyone who wants to participate is invited to engage with the listening exercise described at paragraph 4 above.
- Core Participant (“CP”) status for those who wish to be more fully involved in the inquiry’s work will be determined on a module-by-module basis and Baroness Hallett made clear that “there will be few if any people or organisations who are designated as Core Participants for the whole Inquiry”.
- Those who are given CP status will, as is customary:
- be provided with electronic disclosure for the subject-matter in respect of which they are designated CPs (subject to any restrictions on public access made in accordance with Section 19 of the Inquiries Act 2005);
- have the right to make opening and closing statements at any hearing;
- have the right to suggest lines of questioning to be pursued by Counsel to the Inquiry; and
- have the right to apply to the inquiry to ask questions of witnesses during a hearing.
- Application details and timescales for each module will be published on the inquiry website and their success will be determined at the discretion of the Chair with or without oral submissions being heard.
- In accordance with Rule 5 of the Inquiry Rules 2006, when reviewing applications for CP status, Baroness Hallett will give consideration to whether the applicant:
- played, or may have played, a direct and significant role in relation to the matters to which the inquiry relates;
- has a significant interest in an important aspect of the matters to which the inquiry relates; and/or
- may be subject to explicit or significant criticism during the inquiry proceedings or in the report, or in any interim report.
However, Baroness Hallett made it clear that she will be exercising “wide discretion” and simply meeting these criteria will not guarantee CP status being granted. She specifically encourages applications from groups of individuals or organisations with similar interests.
How long is this going to take?
- Baroness Hallett made clear that, given its scope, this will not be a quick process and will take longer than some would like to complete. In admitting this she says: “I make no apology for that. I am determined to ensure that the Inquiry has access to the evidence it needs and has the time to analyse that evidence properly before witnesses appear in front of me.”
- The modular approach and promised regular reports with interim recommendations will enable some to feel real progress and change but there is no escaping that this inquiry will take years to complete.
So what happens now?
The inquiry team will be busy gathering evidence, preparing for the first three modules and setting up the logistics and planning for the nationwide listening exercise. In the meantime, those wishing to apply for Core Participant status for Module 1 have until 16 August 2022 to do so and we await further news on who will be appointed by the Prime Minister as the 2 panel members to assist Baroness Hallett in leading the inquiry. Many will be keen for firm dates to be announced as to the preliminary and substantive hearings for the modules due to begin this year, and when CPs will gain access to the no-doubt extensive evidence that will be collated and disclosed.
Saunders Law is proud to be working with the Federation of Ethnic Minority Healthcare Organisations (“FEMHO”) and the Covid-19 Airborne Transmission Alliance (“CATA”) in relation to these issues. We currently represent core participants in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Infected Blood Inquiry and the Undercover Policing Inquiry and can offer expert 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.