UK COVID-19 Public Inquiry Terms of Reference finalised and presented to the Prime Minister for approval
In April, we published an article about the UK COVID-19 Public Inquiry’s four-week long consultation process into its draft Terms of Reference (“TORs”), which will shape the scope of issues to be addressed by the Inquiry. Last month, the Inquiry published its summary report into the consultation, having analysed the 20,000 responses received, and meeting over 140 organisations across various sectors in roundtable discussions and 150 bereaved families.
The public’s contributions have assisted the Chair of the Inquiry, Baroness Hallett, in revising the draft TORs. On 21 May, the Chair wrote to the Prime Minister advising him of the proposed changes and asking him to expand their scope to include:
Children and young people, including the impact on health, wellbeing and social care education and early years provision;
Impacts on mental health and wellbeing of the UK population; and
Collaboration between central government, devolved administrations, local authorities and the voluntary and community sector.
The Chair highlighted in the report a number of areas that were addressed by responders in the consultation process, but that she considered to be already covered by the existing broad TORs. Where this was the case, the Chair indicated the topics as such or amended, strengthened or clarified the language used within those existing topics.
The sheer breadth of the TORs was particularly highlighted through the Chair’s comment that the Inquiry “will need to retain the flexibility to examine new issues as they are identified from the evidence collected” and that “an issue does not need to be explicitly listed within the [TORs] for [the Inquiry] to be able to examine it, so long as it fits within one of those broad topics”.
Impact upon private organisations and businesses
Our previous article raised concerns that the draft TORs made no explicit reference to the impact of the pandemic on private organisations or businesses. The consultation identified this concern, and the report noted that a common theme raised was the impact on particular sectors of the economy and the analysis of the costs and benefits of policies and restrictions introduced during the pandemic response – for example, the impact of the ‘substantial meal’ rule in the hospitality sector, and the effect of international travel restrictions on the travel and tourism sector.
Reassuringly, the Chair noted in the report that the Inquiry intends to examine these issues, the experience of a range of sectors, as well as the effectiveness of broader economic interventions under the existing topic within the TOR of “the economic response to the pandemic”. The Inquiry will also consider the experiences of workers in a range of sectors through the existing TOR topic of “the experiences of and impact of health and care sector workers, and other key workers, during the pandemic”.
Other findings in the consultation summary report
The consultation asked for views on which topics the Inquiry should look at first, and whether the Inquiry should set a planned end date for its hearings. The Chair announced in the report that whilst it is premature to make decisions on the exact ordering/timeframe ahead of the Prime Minister’s decision on the final TORs, the Inquiry will provide further details on how it intends to conduct itself (including proposing an end date) over the summer.
The Chair also commented that the Inquiry intends to conduct a wide-reaching listening exercise (targeted for autumn 2022), so it can ensure the bereaved and those who have suffered from the pandemic have their voices heard and are involved in the planning and design of the Inquiry.
We now await the Prime Minister’s response to the Chair’s proposed TORs, which he has been requested to turn to without delay, so as to allow the Inquiry to begin its formal work. Once the Prime Minister has approved the final TORs, the Inquiry will be established with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 and can begin to the call for individuals and organisations to apply for ‘Core Participant’ status.
To repeat the Chair’s sentiment, “at this stage, without knowing the content of the final [TORs], it is difficult to be precise about what exactly is involved and how long it will take”, which is particularly so given an end date for the Inquiry is yet to be established. What we can say however is that, given the vast scope of the topics covered in the TORs and the Chair’s apparent willingness to explore issues not explicitly covered by them (provided they fall within one of the broad topics), the Covid-19 Inquiry could look to be of an unprecedented length. It could also be interpreted from the Chair’s recent appointment of 12 Queen’s Counsel (QCs) to the Inquiry’s legal team that the breadth, length and cost of the Inquiry is anticipated to be considerable – by way of a comparison, the Manchester Arena Inquiry appointed 3 QCs, yet is in its 5th year of investigations and proceedings, and running at an estimated cost of £26.7m.