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UK COVID-19 inquiry: What the draft terms of reference tell us

Posted on 17 March 2022

On the 10 March the Government published the draft terms of reference for the much-anticipated forthcoming COVID-19 inquiry that is due to start in the spring. These draft terms are the product of a consultation between the Chair of the Inquiry Baroness Hallett and ministers from the devolved administrations. There will now be a four-week consultation in which changes to the draft terms can be made before they are finalised.

An inquiry of this size and scope has not taken place since the Iraq inquiry and it is likely to be the most seminal inquiry in living memory, save for the Grenfell inquiry.

The inquiry will also perhaps be viewed through a more political lens than previous inquiries because so much of the decision making that took place during the Covid-19 pandemic was couched in political and ideological debate. However whilst the draft terms of reference show that the Inquiry will consider intergovernmental decision making, it will not be seeking to apportion blame. Rather it will focus on identifying the lessons that need to be learned in order for the UK to better prepare for any future pandemics.

The pandemic affected many people in different ways. The broad nature of the terms of reference reflects the fact that the inquiry will need to take a global approach in producing a meaningful factual narrative that will lead to recommendations for a more preventative approach to pandemics in the future. This is not to say that there will be no consideration given to specific instances of harm or death. The draft terms make it clear that the inquiry will listen to the experiences of bereaved families and others who experienced loss or hardship as a result of the pandemic. What the inquiry will not do is seek to examine in detail the specifics of any one case. Nevertheless the fact that individuals who suffered such losses will be given an opportunity to share their experience is perhaps especially important in view of the argument that the pandemic served to expose deep socio-economic fissures that existed before the pandemic.

The draft terms of reference show that the inquiry will specifically cover a range of issues:

  • Legislative and regulatory control – this may lead to a recommendation that new legislation be introduced to help future Governments manage pandemics. The draft terms also refer to the use of 'non-pharmaceutical' interventions such as lockdown and face coverings. Such issues will be important for the inquiry to consider because of the ongoing debate about the legal application of rules imposed during the pandemic and some confusion about what constituted rules (akin to law) to be followed and recommendations or guidance that constituted a 'best practice' approach.
  • The closure and reopening of the hospitality, retail, sport and leisure sectors, and cultural institutions - an area of significant interest to businesses in particular, many of whom felt that some of the decision making around closures and other restrictions imposed during the pandemic did not properly account for the particular pressures faced by those working in those industries.
  • The response of the health and care sector across the UK - this will include looking at the preparedness, initial capacity and the ability to increase capacity, and resilience of the sector. This is another area that has fostered much debate particularly around the decision to release Covid infected elderly patients back to care homes. An examination of this area may provide an opportunity for the social care sector - which many have argued has been chronically underfunded - to press its case for better funding, and to ensure that it has a strong representative voice in the inquiry to effectively advocate on its behalf.
  • The availability and use of data and evidence and the safeguarding of public funds and management of financial risk – which became a topic of debate during the pandemic, with some experts even reaching diametrically opposed conclusions when examining the same set of data. Action has also already been taken through the creation of the Taxpayer Protection Taskforce and prosecutions of individuals and business suspected of abusing some of the Government's Covid relief packages. It is to be hoped that the inquiry will be able to provide recommendations that will help future Governments in their economic response to a pandemic of similar size.

The forthcoming Covid-19 Inquiry will draw much scrutiny and perhaps some apprehension from some quarters. At the very least, the draft terms of reference show that the inquiry will take a broad but manageable approach to examining what happened, what went wrong, and what lessons we can learn for the future.

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