The public inquiry into the UK's response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and the lessons to be learned – is starting to take shape.
As early as May 2021, the Prime Minister announced that a public inquiry would be established to consider the UK's response to the "gravest pandemic for a century". In December 2021 the Right Honourable Baroness Heather Hallett DBE was announced as the chair of the UK COVID-19 Inquiry.
Since then, draft Terms of Reference have been published and a public consultation on the wording of the Terms has been held.
The Terms of Reference will determine the scope of what the Inquiry is to investigate. In draft form, they give a sense of the likely parameters of the Inquiry and the Inquiry's two broad aims.
The first aim is to examine the response to and impact of the pandemic across the UK and produce a factual narrative account, focusing on public health decision-making and its consequences, the response of the health and care sector and the economic response to the pandemic. This encompasses issues such as:
- the use of lockdowns, face coverings and testing and tracing;
- the impact on education, housing, the justice system and immigration;
- the development and delivery of vaccines; and
- the deployment of the furlough scheme.
The second aim is to identify lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic which can inform the UK's preparations for future pandemics. The draft Terms of Reference suggest that this second aim will encompass listening to the experiences of bereaved families and of health and care sector workers. This is also likely to include some comparison between the UK's response to the pandemic and those of other countries.
On 12 May 2022, Baroness Hallett wrote to the Prime Minister with her recommended Terms of Reference, taking into account feedback from the consultation. This includes expanding the Terms to consider the impact on children and young people (including health, wellbeing and social care, and early years provision), the mental health and wellbeing of the UK population, and collaboration between regional, devolved and national government and the voluntary and community sector.
As the Inquiry gets underway, Baroness Hallett as chair will designate individuals who are to be "core participants" in the Inquiry. Under the Inquiry Rules 2006, this designation grants the individuals in question certain rights, including rights to make opening and closing statements at any hearing, to ask questions of witnesses at public hearings, to see evidence held by the Inquiry that relates to the participant's interest in the Inquiry and to receive a copy of any final or interim report prior to publication.
The rights afforded to core participants are significant. With the right to make statements and ask questions of witnesses at hearings comes the opportunity to put forward the participant's version of events on the issues being discussed. This can be important in several ways: it might help to mitigate against an individual's risk of criminal or civil enforcement measures, or it might provide an opportunity to influence preventative measures where the Inquiry is considering lessons to be learned for the future. The entitlement to review reports in draft prior to publication can also provide opportunities to pre-empt and anticipate criticism before it becomes public.
In designating core participants, the chair is to consider whether a particular person (1) played, or may have played, a direct and significant role to the matters to which the Inquiry relates, (2) has a significant interest in an important aspect of those matters, or (3) may be subject to explicit or significant criticism in the Inquiry proceedings or in any interim or final report.
Given the broad scope of the Terms of Reference and the unique way that the pandemic affected society as a whole, core participants in this Inquiry could include a very wide range of people. It is difficult to anticipate where the line will be drawn as to whom to designate. However, it is likely that core participants will include public figures, such as Government ministers and scientific advisors, and private individuals, including NHS workers and families of the bereaved. Businesses and schools may also be included.
Over the coming months, the final Terms of Reference will be published and core participants designated. With an inquiry of this scale, progress is unlikely to be quick: Baroness Hallett has indicated that she hopes to begin public hearings in 2023. Further updates on timeframes are likely to be available over the coming months.