On Thursday 10 March, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry launched a public consultation regarding the terms of reference that will establish the parameters for the Inquiry’s forthcoming work. The consultation will conclude on Thursday 7 April.
The draft terms of reference set out two key objectives for the Inquiry: (1) examining the Covid-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in the UK, including producing a factual narrative account; and (2) identifying lessons to be learned, to inform the UK’s preparedness for future pandemics. Notably, the draft terms of reference proposed by the Prime Minister do not expressly ask the Inquiry to ascribe blame for any aspects of the UK Government response that may be found to have been deficient. In this respect, the draft terms of reference are very similar to those already adopted for the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry, which also focus on establishing facts and lessons for the future.
As expected, the draft terms of reference envisage that the Inquiry should address all aspects of the health and social care response, ranging from the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment, to the development and delivery of therapeutics and vaccines, and the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns and social distancing. In addition, if the draft terms were to be adopted in their current form, the Inquiry also will consider a broader range of issues, including the consequences of the pandemic for other public services (such as the justice system and schools), and the economic response to the pandemic and its impact.
The consultation is seeking views on: (1) whether the draft terms of reference cover all areas that should be addressed by the Inquiry; (2) any issues that the Inquiry ought to consider prioritising first; (3) whether the Inquiry should set a planned end-date for public hearings, to ensure timely publication of findings and recommendations; and (4) the design of the Inquiry, to ensure that the bereaved and others who have suffered harm or hardship have their voices heard. Alongside this online consultation, the Chair of the Inquiry, Baroness Hallett, announced in a public letter that she intends to visit towns and cities around the country “to gather the views of bereaved families, community and support groups, and other organisations”.
It is unclear when the final terms of reference will be agreed by the Prime Minister, but the consultation paper states that “[t]his will be done as quickly as possible, to allow the Inquiry to begin its work.” Baroness Hallett has already indicated that she expects the Inquiry to gather evidence throughout this year, with the hope of beginning public hearings in 2023.
In view of the draft terms of reference and the proposed timeline, it is reasonable for businesses that had a significant role in the UK’s response to the pandemic — including those companies that were major suppliers to the UK Government or National Health Service — to expect to receive requests from the Inquiry. For example, the press and public interest lawyers have already been focused on procurement practices, including the use of so-called “VIP lanes” to expedite decision-making for some prospective suppliers. Under the Inquiries Act 2005, Baroness Hallett will have the power to compel the giving of evidence, including in the form of a written statement, and to require production of documents relating to the subject-matter of the Inquiry.
Covington’s UK Parliamentary and Public Inquiries team is closely monitoring developments relating to the Covid-19 Inquiry, and intends to provide further updates when the terms of reference are finalised and the Inquiry begins collecting evidence.