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The Covid-19 Inquiry

What is the Covid-19 inquiry? What powers does it have? What is its purpose and scope?

The National Covid Memorial Wall. On the wall are red and pink hearts to commemorate the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like other public inquiries, the inquiry will listen to the accounts of victims and their families, as well as seek to establish facts, find fault, and learn lessons.

What is the Covid-19 Inquiry?

The Covid-19 Inquiry is a public inquiry set up to examine ‘the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.’ It is being held under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005.

What powers does the Covid-19 Inquiry have?

Under the powers of the Inquiries Act 2005, the inquiry chair has the power to compel documents and call witnesses to give evidence under oath. 64 Inquiries Act 2005,

Who is running the inquiry?

Baroness Heather Hallett, a retired judge and crossbench peer, was announced as the inquiry chair in December 2021. She previously led the inquest into the deaths of the victims of the 7/7 bombings.

She is supported by a team of lawyers and seconded civil servants, led by the inquiry counsel, solicitor and secretary. 65

What is the purpose of the Covid-19 Inquiry?

Like other public inquiries, the inquiry will listen to the accounts of victims and their families, as well as seek to establish facts, find fault, and learn lessons. 66 Beer J (2011) Public Inquiries, Oxford University Press

In his speech announcing the inquiry in May 2021, Boris Johnson said it would seek to scrutinise and learn lessons from “all key aspects of the UK response” to the pandemic. 67

The inquiry’s terms of reference, published in June 2022, set out a series of aims including:

The inquiry is undertaking a listening exercise, Every Story Matters, which encourages members of the public to submit testimony of their experiences of the pandemic. The listening exercise launched in June 2023. 

What is the scope of the inquiry?

The terms of reference for the inquiry give it a very wide-ranging scope.

The Inquiry is divided into a series of modules looking at different aspects of the Covid pandemic. Four modules have so far been opened, covering:

  1. Resilience and preparedness
  2. Core UK decision-making and political governance
  3. The impact of the pandemic on the healthcare system
  4. Vaccines and therapeutics

Several modules are expected to be opened in the coming months, covering issues including government procurement and PPE, test and trace, and health inequalities. Further modules may yet be announced. 69

How is the inquiry structured?

Hearings for different modules of the inquiry are opened in sequence. Modules 1, 2, and 3 have so far held preliminary hearings, with the first public hearings for Module 1 planned for Tuesday 13 June. 70 Module 2, on UK decision-making, also expects to hold public hearings in summer 2023. 71 Preliminary hearings are procedural, whereas public hearings hear formal evidence from witnesses. 72

Groups or individuals with interest or expertise in, or with experience of, the inquiry’s subject matter can apply for Core Participant status. This gives them the right to access evidence, make opening and closing statements, suggest lines of questioning, and apply to ask questions during witness testimony. 73

The inquiry invites applications for Core Participant status when each module is opened. Core Participants for Module 1 include the victims group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice and several Westminster and devolved government departments. 74

Not all witnesses have Core Participant status. The inquiry will hear witness testimony from those with a variety of different experiences of the pandemic, including politicians, scientific experts, and victims’ groups. Former prime minister David Cameron and former chancellor George Osborne are expected to give evidence to the inquiry’s first module. 75

What is the timetable for the inquiry?

The inquiry formally commenced on 28 June 2022, with the publication of its terms of reference. 76 A key aim of the inquiry, published in its terms of reference, is to “produce its reports… and any recommendations in a timely manner.”

Preliminary hearings began in early 2023, with full public hearings to begin on 13 June 2023. 77 Hearings are currently expected to continue until 2026, though interim reports are expected to be published before then. 78  

Will the inquiry cover the whole of the UK?

The inquiry will consider the Covid response across the UK, including reserved and devolved matters. However, it will “seek to minimise duplication” of investigations being carried out by devolved governments. 79

The Scottish government announced in December 2021 that it would establish its own Covid inquiry to “investigate aspects of the devolved strategic response to the pandemic.” The inquiry was officially established in February 2022. 80 Under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005, the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry may not “determine any fact or make any recommendation that is not wholly or primarily concerned with a Scottish matter.” 81

What challenges has the inquiry faced?

The inquiry has faced challenges in its attempts to gain access to WhatsApp and diary records held by Boris Johnson and the Cabinet Office, which the government argues it can only provide in redacted form. During the preliminary hearing for Module 1 held on 6 June, the chair named the Foreign Office as a second department which had failed to comply with requests for unredacted messages. She also said some deadlines for government witness statements had been missed.

On 1 June, the Cabinet Office launched a judicial review objecting to Baroness Hallett’s request for unredacted records. Some records have also been handed directly to the inquiry by former prime minister Boris Johnson. 82

How much will the inquiry cost?

Inquiries can run up enormous bills. According to IfG research, the UK and devolved nations spent at least £630m on public inquiries between 1990 and 2017.

In August 2022, two months after its establishment, press reports suggested that £85m had already been spent on the Covid-19 Inquiry. 83 Recent reports have suggested that number has now topped £100 million. 84 Its costs are likely to surpass those of the most expensive inquiry ever, the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, which cost almost £200m.

How does the inquiry compare to international Covid inquiries?

Some Covid inquiries have already reported; the Swedish and Australian inquiries have already published their final reports, while the Dutch equivalent is expected to report later this year.

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