Covid-19 Inquiry: What are the implications for your organisation?


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On 12 May 2021, the Prime Minister announced that there will be a public inquiry into the Covid-19 response commencing in Spring 2022 (the Inquiry).

He said that the "State has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future." The Inquiry will be undertaken on a statutory basis with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.

Although there are calls by some for the Inquiry to be set up as soon as possible, the Prime Minister has justified the timing on the basis that the Inquiry would put a significant burden on the NHS, Government and its scientific advisors, particularly if faced with a third wave of the virus next winter. The Prime Minister has indicated that the Inquiry must review the events of last year in the cold light of day, scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players and analyse and learn from the breadth of the response.

The announcement comes following the findings of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, appointed by the WHO, that, despite wide-spread knowledge of the risks, governments failed to take sufficient preparatory steps to prepare and there were serious failures in the global response. Their report will no doubt be compelling reading for those handling the crisis now and into the next stage.

What are the next steps?

At present we have no "setting-up date" for the Inquiry, only the indication of Spring 2022. It is possible that the Government's decision to delay the start of the Inquiry until this date will be subject to a judicial review challenge by those who want it to start sooner, to ensure lessons are learnt and which can have an impact on decision making throughout the rest of the pandemic.

That does not mean that nothing will happen before then; the Government will appoint a Chair and the terms of reference, setting out what the Inquiry will cover, will be prepared. Commonly we have seen judges appointed to this role (such as in the Grenfell Inquiry), but it is possible that the Chair will be a public health specialist.

One thing is certain: the Inquiry will take many years to complete. The extent of evidence to be reviewed, including core participant evidence, data compilation and analysis gathered during the pandemic and the Government response will be vast. It is hoped it will provide answers to all those directly affected to date and as we prepare for the future.

What you should be thinking about now?

Depending on your organisation's sector and role during the pandemic, you may be asked to be a "core participant" or alternatively choose to apply to become one. This may be because you played a "direct or significant role", have a significant interest, or could be subject to criticism during the Inquiry. Core participants have special rights in the inquiry process, which include receiving disclosure of documentation, being represented and making legal submissions, suggesting questions and receiving advance notice of the Inquiry's report.

Alternatively, you (or your staff) may be called as a witness. In most cases, witness evidence will be given by written statement or documents and it is for the Inquiry to decide who should be called to give evidence at an oral hearing. If you think your organisation may be asked to submit evidence, you may want to consider recording staff experiences now. You can also take steps to collate and retain data and documentation which might be relevant to the Inquiry.

Although the Inquiry cannot find civil or criminal liability, it is possible that it could result in future claims, based on the facts which come out of the process.

We will be providing further updates as more information is announced about the Inquiry.

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