A post-COVID-19 public inquiry: lessons to be learnt?

The UK Government has been under pressure for some time by the media, bodies including the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, and petitions to Parliament to call a public inquiry on the management of the pandemic by the Government. The Government responded, on the closure of the petition in the summer of last year, that “there will be an important moment to look back, analyse, reflect and to learn lessons. As the Prime Minister has said, this will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time”. It seems that this time has now been confirmed with the Government announcement on 12 May that there will be a public inquiry in spring 2022 whereby the “UK’s COVID-19 response would be placed under a microscope”.

We explore in this article what is a public inquiry and what a post-COVID-19 public inquiry could involve.

What is a public inquiry?

Public inquiries investigate issues of public concern, scrutinising past decisions and events to ensure that lessons are learnt to prevent or manage more effectively such issues of concern in the future.

Well known public inquiries include the ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Shipman Inquiry, Bloody Sunday Inquiry and various Inquiries into issues arising from the war in Iraq.

Public inquiries are conducted by a senior official, often a judge, who will review documents, hear witness evidence and evidence from experts specialised in a range of disciplines. At the end of the inquiry, conclusions are drawn and recommendations made to ensure that lessons have been learnt. The purpose of an inquiry is not to determine civil or criminal liability, however what is heard can often influence the direction of any ongoing investigation by a regulatory authority.

With global travel and distribution of goods recommencing, many are now questioning how best to prepare for future pandemics. Historically, the process of holding a public inquiry and reaching a conclusion has been notoriously slow and expensive. It appears that the Government has recognised public pressure that an inquiry concerning the management of the pandemic should be heard in a timely fashion to ensure any lessons learnt are considered and implemented quickly in the event of a further wave of COVID-19 or indeed, another virus pandemic. It is therefore essential that steps are taken to ensure that the inquiry is comprehensive and not rushed through as a token gesture. There has been response from various groups, including the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign group and political opposition parties, that suggest any inquiry needs to takes place as soon as reasonably possible to avoid the Government “getting away…from early accountability”.

What will a post COVID-19 public inquiry look like?

The terms of reference, specific instructions as to the questions that the inquiry should address and the type of information the Government want back from the inquiry, could potentially be vast. Each area could require multiple witnesses, its own expert and commentator which could warrant its own separate hearing to ensure a comprehensive review. Therefore, there is a risk that the inquiry could be streamlined without dealing with all of the public concerns related to the management of the pandemic. Terms of reference that could be explored during the inquiry include the following:

  • The timing of the lockdowns and the suggestion to follow a ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Would an earlier lockdown have prevented deaths?
  • Governance in the UK could be questioned as the different devolved nations of the UK made different decisions during the course of the pandemic.
  • The frequently reported delayed decision to close the UK borders to non-essential travel.
  • Why the UK (at the time of writing) had a reportedly higher death rate compared to most other countries in the EU.
  • The discharging of patients from hospitals to care homes and the guidance given.
  • The provision and distribution of PPE to hospitals and care homes as well as the guidance provided to healthcare staff.
  • Reports that a higher number of deaths occurred during the pandemic in ethnic minorities.

The above is far from exhaustive. There is to be a consultation between the devolved nations who may all take a slightly different view as to what an inquiry should consider and there are calls from families of the bereaved to have some input as to terms of reference of any inquiry.

Comment

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on people’s lives and continues to do so, especially the bereaved.

It is likely that there are many areas that will need to be explored as to the management of the pandemic, to ensure that the inquiry is effective. We do not yet know whether the inquiry will want to hear from people in industry - for example, the inquiry might want to hear from NHS trusts and other front line workers to understand what the position was 'on the ground' with PPE. Regardless of which entities are involved, we know from experience that inquiries are often very stressful for those involved, especially witnesses whose evidence can be widely reported.

Related service: Public inquiries