Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Covid ~ announcement of an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005

An inquiry:

On 12 May 2021, the Prime Minister announced in a House of Commons statement that there is to be an inquiry relating to the Coronavirus Pandemic - Hansard 12 May 2021.

After referring to the tragic loss of life due to coronavrius (including over 127,000 deaths in the UK), the PM said - "... , the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future, which is why I have always said that, when the time is right, there should be a full and independent inquiry. I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath."

In response to

Sir Keir Starmer (Leader of the Opposition), the PM confirmed that the inquiry would be set up this year and would be ready to commence hearing evidence in the Spring of 2022.

Detailed arrangements yet to be made:

Mr Johnson also stated that the devolved Administrations would be consulted before finalising the scope and detailed arrangements, so that the inquiry is able to consider all key aspects of the UK response. (Here it is worth noting that the UK has handled the pandemic with distinct responses in each of the four nations of the UK).

The detailed arrangements will include the crucial terms of reference (TOR) and the individual who will chair the inquiry. 

The Chair will almost certainly be a judge, whether active or retired, though the Chair does not legally-speaking have to be a judge. 

Sir Keir Starmer asked that families, frontline NHS staff be consulted about the terms of reference and also that Parliament itself have a say before the TOR are finalised. There seems to be no good reason why such consultations cannot take place in the immediate future.

Unsurprisingly, there is already concern about delay in getting the inquiry underway - The Guardian 12 May 2021

Learning lessons:

The PM said that the government was fully committed to learning lessons at every stage of the crisis. He said - "We have already subjected our response to independent scrutiny, including 17 reports by the independent National Audit Office and 50 parliamentary inquiries, and we will continue to do so - we will continue to learn lessons, as we have done throughout the pandemic."

The Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee are doing their own inquiries and the latter hopes to report in July. 

Purposes of an inquiry:

According to a 2014 report by the Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005, inquiries have the following purposes:

A key purpose of this inquiry ought to be to consider the government's preparedness for a pandemic and to examine decision-making processes and the actual decisions made as the pandemic developed. This goes to the heart of learning lessons and making recommendations for the management of any future pandemic.

The Inquiry should also consider future preparedness including on-going research into potential threats from disease and the preparation of suitable vaccines as well as ensuring that vaccines can be produced and distributed in a timely manner.

Timescale:

If the inquiry actually starts hearing evidence in the spring of 2022 then the question arises as to the timescale for the publication of a report or, perhaps, reports. 

It may be that the inquiry will choose to focus on particular aspects which have attracted greater public attention (e.g. personal protective equipment, care homes, testing and tracing, education of children, travel restrictions, the operation during the pandemic of courts and tribunals etc). If that appoach is adopted then there is a possibility that the inquiry will issue a number or reports and may enable key lessons to be identified earlier than would be the case if the inquiry eventually published a single report.

Even a brief attempt to list areas for the inquiry to examine shows that, on any view, this is going to be a lengthy and difficult process if it is to be in any way a comprehensive examination. 

At best, inquiries are slow-moving affairs. A report by the Institute of Government published in December 2017 noted that. since 1990, they have taken an average of two-and-a-half years to report and nine have taken five years or more to produce their final reports. The Grenfell Fire Inquiry is still continuing having been set up in 2017.

Inquiries are also very expensive. The Grenfell Inquiry costs amounted to £117m for the period 1 August 2017 to 31 March 2021.

The Grenfell Inquiry also reported in 2019 that it had received and reviewed more than 500,000 documents. Given the scale of public body involvement in the coronavirus pandemic the volume of documentation is likely to be even greater.

Given the likely timescale, it is unlikely that the inquiry will have completed its work before the next general election which is currently scheduled for 2024 - The Guardian 12 May - PM's Covid inquiry delay shows No 10 already eyeing next general election

Links:

Law and Lawyers - Coronavirus Log

National Audit Office 19 May - Initial learning from the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The Guardian 14 May - Don't wait for government - UK scientists should conduct a Covid inquiry now

The Telegraph 14 May - We really need an inquiry into how Sage forced Britain into lockdown

The Guardian 13 May - UK Covid inquiry: the key areas likely to be scrutinised 

The Guardian 12 May - PM's Covid inquiry delay shows No 10 already eyeing next general election

BBC News 12 May - Covid jabs offer to 38 and 39 year olds in England

BBC News 12 May - Lessons to be learned from spring 2022 public inquiry - PM

The Guardian 12 May - Inquiry into Covid response will start in spring 2022

BBC News - 12 May - Public inquiry confirmed, and vaccines for 38 and 39 year olds in England

Institute for Government 25 March 2013 - Are public inquiries worth the time, money and resources?


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