The delayed public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been launched after Boris Johnson accepted calls to widen the terms of reference to consider its unequal impact on minority-ethnic people, on children and on mental health.
The inquiry chair, Heather Hallett, and her team of 12 QCs have begun work under the terms of the Inquiries Act, which makes it an offence to destroy or tamper with evidence. She will be joined by two panellists to be appointed by Johnson, although she had argued for presiding alone.
The launch of what is expected to be one of the largest public inquiries conducted in the UK comes days after campaigners for the bereaved threatened legal action against the government over the delay to the prime minister’s commitment to set the inquiry up in spring 2022.
“Today is a special day for thousands of bereaved families from all corners of the country,” said Hannah Brady, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign. “Finally we can begin the process of learning lessons from the awful suffering we’ve endured so that we can move forward with our lives and protect others in the future.”
The inquiry will “examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic in England, Galles, Scotland and Northern Ireland” and it begins as the number of UK fatalities with Covid on their death certificate approaches 200,000.
In an apparent warning to people and organisations required to submit evidence and witnesses, which could include Johnson, cabinet ministers and senior civil servants, Lady Hallett said: “I shall not tolerate any attempt to mislead the inquiry, to undermine its integrity or its independence.”
Il terms of reference published by the Cabinet Office on Tuesday cover 37 topics divided into three areas: the public health response across the whole of the UK; the response of the health and care sector across the UK; and the economic response to the pandemic and its impact, including governmentinterventions.
The topics likely to prove most controversial include the use of lockdowns, which could examine the effect of rule breaking in Downing Street; the test-and-trace system; infection control in care homes, which the high court has already ruled was unlawful and “irrational”; the procurement and distribution of PPE; and the use of do-not-resuscitate notices.
In a letter to Hallett, Johnson described the terms of reference as “undoubtedly … broad and challenging”.
The inquiry will travel around the UK to take evidence, and Hallett said it would listen to people who had suffered during the pandemic and felt they had been ignored. It would produce a series of interim reports “to reduce or prevent the suffering and hardship in any future pandemic”, lei disse.
Evidence hearings are expected to begin in 2023 and Hallett has asked for patience as she and team try to meet what she described as an ambitious timetable.
Downing Street agreed the inquiry should examine disparities evident in the impact of the pandemic on different categories of people, including those relating to legal “protected characteristics” under equality laws which means the impact of poverty as well as race, religion and gender could be examined.
It will not consider individual cases of harm or death in detail, but instead will launch a “listening project” to gather accounts from those who were bereaved to “inform its understanding” of the pandemic’s impact, the response and the lessons to be learned.