COVID-19 public inquiry: preliminary hearings

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05/12/2022

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The first preliminary hearings in relation to the COVID-19 public inquiry (the inquiry) have now taken place before Baroness Hallett. As the scope of the inquiry is so wide, many organisations participating in public-related activities are likely to be impacted. As such, these businesses should carefully consider the Terms of Reference on the inquiry's website.

The Terms of Reference of the inquiry

The Terms of Reference were determined on 28 June 2022. Due to the number of topics to be covered, the inquiry has been divided into a number of modules. To date, the first three modules have been announced:

  1. Resilience, planning and preparedness in relation to the pandemic.
  2. Core decision making.
  3. The health care system.

Further modules covering a number of other topics, including government procurement, the test and trace system and the care sector will be announced in 2023.

Module 1

The first module, pandemic preparedness, was the focus of the first preliminary hearing, the purpose of which was to examine the following:

  1. The basic characteristics and epidemiology of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
  2. The government structures and specialist bodies concerned with risk management and civil emergency planning, including devolved administrations and their structures, local authorities and private sector bodies, historical changes to such structures and bodies as well as the structures in place as of January 2020, inter-organisational processes and cooperation.
  3. The planning for a pandemic, including forecasting, resources, and the learning from past simulation exercises (including coronavirus, new and emerging high-consequence infectious diseases and influenza pandemic/epidemic exercises), the emergency plans that were in place, biosecurity issues relevant to the risk of pandemics/epidemics, international comparisons and the history of, and learning from, past policy-related investigations.
  4. Public health services, including the structure of public health bodies, their development over time and readiness and preparation in practice; public health capacity, resources and levels of funding, any impact arising from the UK’s departure from the European Union, and the way in which relevant bodies monitored and communicated about emerging disease.
  5. Economic planning by relevant government bodies, including capacity and spending commitments and efficiency and anti-fraud controls, in the context of emergency planning.
  6. Planning for future pandemics, including (in outline) the state of international preparedness; the risks of new variants of COVID-19, other viruses of concern, and diseases from human contact/viral transmission with animals.

Module 2

A further preliminary hearing has confirmed that Module 2 will examine the core administrative and political decision making by the UK and devolved governments, with particular focus on early 2020. Evidence in relation to this module is to be heard in the summer of 2023. The module can be broken down as follows:

  • Module 2– will examine the decisions taken by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers and relevant cabinet sub-committees.
  • Module 2A – will examine key groups and individuals within the Scottish Government including the First Minister and other Scottish ministers.
  • Module 2B – will examine key groups and individuals within the Welsh Government including the First Minister and other Welsh ministers.
  • Module 2C – will examine the decision making of key groups and individuals within the government in Northern Ireland including the First Minster, Deputy First Minister and other ministers.

It became apparent during the preliminary hearing for Module 2 that thousands of documents have been requested from various departments within government, including the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care. Copies of internal communications including WhatsApp messages sent by the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, along with other Senior Officials, have also been requested.

Core Participants

As one would expect, given the purpose of Modules 1 and 2, the Core Participants are very much centered around relevant departments within government, including NHS England, UK Health Security Agency and the Association of Directors of Public Health.

A complete list of the Core Participants can be found here.

Each Core Participant is legally represented and will, for the purpose of Module 1 and 2, have access to relevant disclosure, and be able to question witnesses and put forward submissions during the hearing next year.

Comment

At the time of writing, with 28 legally represented Core Participants for Module 1, and 39 for Module 2, and thousands of documents requested by the inquiry, it can be anticipated that the inquiry as a whole will be lengthy, lasting a number of years. It will therefore be some considerable time before any lessons learnt as a result of the inquiry become policy and part of day to day reality.

Related item: Crime and Regulatory roundup – December 2022

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