What to expect from the UK COVID-19 public inquiry?

Apr 6, 2022

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced there would be a statutory Public Inquiry into the UK’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2021. On 15th December 2021, the Cabinet Office announced that Lady Hallet, a former senior appeal court judge, had been appointed to chair the inquiry.

Unpicking what a Select Committee investigation described as ‘one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced’ will be no easy task. Indeed, the Inquiry is likely to be one of the most complex undertaken in legal history, given the pandemic has affected so many aspects of life in the UK – healthcare, education, the economy, and the legal system.

There are valid questions about the Government’s preparedness, the response of public health and the wider health and care system, and the economic response, as well as investigation required into the conduct of ministers, the reasoning behind many key decisions, and the chain of responsibility.

The terms of reference for the Inquiry were confirmed on 15th March 2022. These terms are set out to establish a trusted and verified narrative around the events of the pandemic to date, what went wrong, what lessons can be learned, and how the Government and others can do things differently in the future.  It also aims to recognise and give a voice to the victims and their families.

The draft terms of reference are as follows:

  1. Examine the COVID-19 response and the impact of the pandemic
      • Preparedness and resilience, decision-making and the use of data and evidence, legislative and regulatory control, the safeguarding of public funds and management of financial risk
      • The use of lockdowns and interventions including social distancing, testing, contact tracing and isolation. As well as restrictions on school attendance and the closing of hospitality, sport, leisure and cultural venues and events, and use of face coverings
      • The impact on housing and homelessness, policing, the justice system, prisons, and other places of detention. The impact on immigration and asylum and the wider impact on travel and borders
      • The response of the health and care sector across the UK, including preparedness, capacity, resilience, infection prevention and control in hospitals, triage, critical care capacity, discharge and DNACPR decisions, palliative care, workforce testing, inspections, impact of staff and staffing levels, the management of the pandemic in care homes and other care settings, shielding and protection of the clinically vulnerable, the procurement and distribution of PPE, the development and delivery of therapeutics and vaccines, the consequences on provision for non-covid related conditions and the provision of care for those experiencing long-covid
      • The economic response to the pandemic and its impact, including government interventions to support businesses and jobs (job retention scheme, CBILS and other loan schemes, income support schemes, business rates relief and grants, additional funding for public services, and benefits, sick pay and support for vulnerable people).
  1. Identify the lessons to be learned and inform the UK’s preparations for future pandemics
        • Listening to the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss as a result of the pandemic.
        • Highlight where lessons identified from preparedness and the response to the pandemic may be applicable to other civil emergencies
        • Consider the experiences of, and impact on, health and care sector workers, and other key workers during the pandemic
        • Consider any disparities evident in the impact of the pandemic and the state’s response, including those relating to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and equality categories under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, as applicable
        • Have reasonable regard to relevant international comparisons; and
        • Produce its reports (including interim reports) and any recommendations in a timely manner.

Lady Hallett’s role is to ensure that the Inquiry is formally independent from Government and operates under a strong presumption of transparency. In doing so she will have powers given to her under the Inquiries Act 2005 to subpoena witnesses, require disclosure of evidence, and hear testimony under oath. It is worth noting, however, that the Inquiry will not determine criminal or civil liability and has no mechanism to hold the Government to account for acting on its findings.

Lady Hallett is currently holding a four-week consultation on the draft terms of reference. The formal start of the Inquiry has yet to be announced, although evidence hearings are not expected to take place until 2023. In an open letter to the public, Lady Hallett said she would finalise the terms of reference after consulting on the draft for a month, and her team would gather evidence in private over the coming months before launching public hearings next year. Currently it is anticipated the final report will be published in 2024.

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