COVID-19 Public Inquiry Announced.

13 May 2021

After months of speculation, the Government yesterday announced a full public Inquiry into its handling of the Covid 19 crisis, beginning in Spring 2022. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told the House of Commons this afternoon “I do believe it’s essential we have a full, proper public inquiry into the Covid pandemic", in response to a question from the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey.

The legal infrastructure for a full public Inquiry, under the Inquiries Act 2005 and the Inquiries Rules 2006, is formidable. The Inquiry will have powers to compel witnesses and to compel disclosure of documents. The Chair of the inquiry has yet to be announced.

The Inquiry is likely to address mistakes made in the government response (however, the law does not allow an Inquiry to make findings of criminal or civil liability) and include recommendations for future preparedness. Inquiries enable people with a particular interest to be Core Participants. They have certain rights, including access to all relevant evidence and the right to question witnesses.

The government has been encouraged to consultant grieving families and those on the front line of the pandemic response as early as possible in order to consider the terms of reference for the Inquiry. The terms of reference will set out the purpose and scope of the inquiry, which is likely to be wide, given the multifaceted challenges arising from the pandemic. It is expected that the Inquiry will consider:

  • The UK's pandemic preparedness
  • The government response in the early days of the pandemic
  • The scientific advice and to what degree it was followed
  • The timing and effectiveness of travel restrictions
  • The response in care homes
  • Procurement
  • Access to PPE for frontline workers and whether inadequate PPE caused or contributed to the deaths of hundreds of frontline workers (particularly in light of the Chief Coroner's (now amended) Guidance No.37)
  • The disproportionate impact of Covid on black and minority ethnic communities
  • The timing and effectiveness of lockdowns, including school closures and economic consequences
  • The effectiveness of NHS test track and trace
  • Vaccination rollout
  • Treatment of long Covid

It remains a possibility that an Independent Review might precede a full Inquiry, in order to answer some more immediate questions, which may influence a future response should new variants emerge, or a third wave threaten.

A highly critical report into the global Covid response was also published yesterday by the International Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Panel found "weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response". The report also acknowledges the response from healthcare workers, 17,000 of whom worldwide lost their lives during the first year of the pandemic. The Panel identified that countries had most success in their response when "They listened to the science, changed course where necessary, engaged communities, and communicated transparently and consistently."

The Inquiry will serve a number of purposes, not least to provide much needed answers for those directly impacted by the pandemic and those grieving after the loss of so many loved ones. It will not provide speedy solutions, but should allow for a collective examination and national reflection on the most challenging period in living memory.  

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Laura Bayley.