Covid-19 inquiry chair to speak out against anyone who 'stands in the way' of the probe

Reporter Chloe Keedy heard from a bereaved son who has waited over two years for this moment

The chair of the long-awaited Covid-19 inquiry has warned she will speak out against anyone who "stands in the way" of the probe, saying she wants lessons to be learned before another outbreak strikes.

Baroness Heather Hallett said she will treat all all holders of evidence and witnesses fairly, but she would speak out about any organisation or person “who stands in the way of the inquiry performing its task”.

The retired court of appeal judge said she would conduct the inquiry as quickly as possible, adding the probe will be a "substantial task" which will take time and "have a significant cost".

More than 200,000 Covid deaths have been recorded across the UK, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Court of Appeal judge Baroness Heather Hallett who will chair the Covid-19 public inquiry. Credit: UK Parliament/PA

In an opening statement on Thursday launching the probe’s investigative phase, Lady Hallett said: “I am determined to undertake and conclude the work of this inquiry as speedily as possible, so that lessons are learned before another pandemic strikes.”

Lady Hallett, a crossbench peer, said she has been struck by the “devastating nature” of people’s loss, and intends to conduct the inquiry in a way that acknowledges the suffering of the bereaved.

“Given the breadth of my investigations, this will not be completed as quickly as some might like. I make no apology for that," she added. “I am determined to ensure that the inquiry has access to the evidence it needs, and has the time to analyse that evidence properly before witnesses appear in front of me."

What are some of the key topics and aims of the inquiry?

  • How well the UK was prepared for a pandemic

  • The effectiveness of the government's response when the pandemic hit

  • Decisions on lockdowns and handling of scientific advice

  • To consider any disparities in the impact of Covid on different categories of people

  • Consider the experiences of bereaved families

  • Highlight where lessons from the pandemic may be applicable to other civil emergencies

The structure of the Covid-19 inquiry and some key dates

Preliminary hearings will begin as soon as September this year, ahead of substantive public hearings starting in late spring 2023.

A “listening exercise” will begin later this year, enabling members of the public to share their story without formally giving evidence or attending a hearing. Aspects of the pandemic will be grouped into modules, with the first considering the extent to which the risk of a pandemic was properly identified and planned for.

The inquiry will examine the decision making around national lockdowns Credit: PA

Anyone who wishes to apply to become a core participant for the first module can do so by August 16, with the first preliminary hearing set for September 20.

A second module will cover core political and administrative governance and decision making for the UK, such as decisions around lockdowns, use of scientific expertise, modelling and data and public health messaging.

The inquiry will begin taking evidence from experts in September.

A third module will examine the impact of coronavirus and the governmental and societal responses to it, focusing on patients, hospitals, health care staff, NHS backlogs, vaccination, and long Covid.

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The government formally launched the inquiry at the end of June – just days after bereaved families threatened legal action over delays.

It came more than six months after Boris Johnson appointed Lady Hallett to chair the probe in December 2021, and after he previously said the inquiry would start in spring this year.

Reacting to the inquiry's opening, Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign, said she hopes the probe takes into account the devastating impact losing loved ones to the virus had.

“Today was an emotional day for those of us who have lost loved ones, and it meant a lot to hear Baroness Hallett recognise the devastating nature of bereavement and the pain we’ve been through," she said.

“Hopefully, this will be reflected by not making bereaved families go through the stressful and draining process of applying to be core participants in every single module.”

Elkan Abrahamson, head of major inquests and inquiries at Broudie Jackson Canter, who represents the group, said it is of “fundamental importance” that the Government fully discloses all relevant documents to the inquiry.

“The bereaved would regard anything less than full disclosure as a cover up,” he added.