The delayed public inquiry into how the UK is handling the Covid-19 pandemic has started after Boris Johnson accepted calls to expand the job description to consider its uneven impact on ethnic minorities, children and mental health.
The investigation chair, Heather Hallett, and her team of 12 QCs have begun operating under the terms of the Inquiries Act, making it a criminal offense to destroy or tamper with evidence. She will be joined by two panelists who will be appointed by Johnson, although she had argued for chairmanship alone.
The launch of what is expected to be one of the largest public inquiries in the UK comes days after bereaved activists threatened legal action against the government over the postponement of the Prime Minister’s commitment to launch the inquiry in the spring of 2022. to set up.
“Today is a special day for thousands of bereaved families from all over the country,” said Hannah Brady, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign. “Finally, we can begin to learn lessons from the terrible suffering we have endured so that we can move on with our lives and protect others in the future.”
The inquiry will “investigate, consider and report on the preparedness and response to the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” and will begin as the number of UK fatalities with Covid on their death certificates approaches 200,000.
In a stark warning to people and organizations required to provide evidence and witnesses, including Johnson, government ministers and senior officials, Lady Hallett said, “I will not tolerate any attempt to mislead the investigation, undermine its integrity or its independence.”
The job description published by the Cabinet Office on Tuesday covers 37 topics, spanning three areas: public health response across the UK; the response of the health and care sector in the UK; and the economic response to the pandemic and its impact, including government interventions.
The topics likely to prove the most controversial include the use of lockdowns, which could explore the effect of violating rules on Downing Street; the test-and-trace system; infection control in care homes, which the Supreme Court ruled was already illegal and “irrational”; the purchase and distribution of PPE; and the use of do not resuscitate notices.
In a letter to Hallett, Johnson described the job description as “undoubtedly…broad and challenging”.
The inquiry will travel across the UK to gather evidence, and Hallett said it would listen to people who had suffered during the pandemic and feel they had been ignored. It would produce a series of interim reports “to reduce or prevent the suffering and hardship in a future pandemic,” she said.
Evidence hearings are expected to begin in 2023, and Hallett has asked for patience as she and the team try to meet what she described as an ambitious timetable.
Downing Street agreed that the study should examine the differences evident in the impact of the pandemic on different categories of people, including those related to legal “protected characteristics” under equality laws, meaning the impact of poverty, as well as race. , religion and gender can be examined .
It will not look at individual cases of injury or death in detail, but will instead launch a “listening project” to collect stories from those who are bereaved to “educate her understanding” of the pandemic’s impact, response and lessons to be learned.