Covid-19 Inquiry: Update
The Prime Minister announced in May 2021 that the public inquiry into the UK's Covid-19 response (the Inquiry) will commence in Spring 2022. The draft Terms of Reference were published on 10 March 2022 and are now due to be consulted upon before they are finalised.
As it stands, the Inquiry will be extremely broad ranging looking at the preparedness and response to the pandemic across the UK. This includes a review of public health decision making, the response of the health and care sector and the economic response. The Inquiry will also seek to identify the lessons to be learned. With such broad themes, we can expect this to be a long running Inquiry.
The Terms of Reference have already been fed into by the devolved nations, but the Inquiry will now look for views from impacted parties across the UK. However, given the number of stakeholders and interested parties, including the victims and their families, and potential scale and reach of the Inquiry, the process of settling the Terms of Reference is complicated. The next stage of consultation will run to 7 April 2022.
While there have been calls for the acceleration of the Inquiry, especially in the wake of the Parliamentary Report of the Health and Social Care, and Science and Technology Committees on "Coronavirus: lessons learned to date" published on 12 October 2021 which was critical of the government's early response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Inquiry is still in the early stages. A website for the Inquiry, on which the draft Terms of Reference can be located, was launched on 28 February 2022, and can be found here.
Retired Court of Appeal judge, the Rt Hon Baroness Heather Hallett DBE, will chair the Inquiry and Hugo Keith QC has been appointed as Lead Counsel to the Inquiry, with further counsel presently being appointed.
Baroness Hallett will bring to the Inquiry extensive experience of high-profile inquests, inquiries and reviews. Her previous roles have included acting as coroner for the inquests of the 56 people who died in the 7 July 2005 London bombings and, at the time her appointment as Chair of the Inquiry was announced, in December 2021, she was chair of the public inquiry into the death of Dawn Sturgess, who died in the 2018 Wiltshire Novichok poisonings.
In August 2021, the Scottish Government announced that it would be setting up its own public inquiry into the handling of the Covid pandemic in Scotland, though would still liaise with the UK government and other devolved administrations on the terms of the UK-wide Inquiry to avoid duplication and overlap. The Scottish inquiry will be chaired by The Honourable Lady Poole QC, Senator of the College of Justice of Scotland, and its Terms of Reference were published in December 2021. These covered 12 areas of investigation including financial support and guidance given to businesses and were also informed by public engagement. The period covered by the Scottish inquiry will be from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2022, but it will also consider pandemic planning undertaken prior to this.
Stakeholders will be concerned that any delays to the start of the Inquiry could see crucial evidence being lost, particularly in government where concerns have previously been raised that digital evidence, including messages on private correspondence channels such as WhatsApp, may not be being adequately preserved. It remains the case that organisations need to ensure that they are retaining records, information and data which might be relevant to the Inquiry and they should also ensure that they have adequate digital preservation infrastructure and records management processes in place.
Once the current consultation period closes on 7 April, we can expect a further update on the process and timescales involved. We will continue to monitor the Inquiry closely and provide further updates as information comes to light.