'Critical': Covid bereaved seek assurances they can share testimonies directly with inquiry

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan delivers the latest from day one of the Covid-19 public inquiry.

Bereaved families are set to attend the first in-person hearing of the Covid inquiry, amid concerns that their testimonies may not be directly heard by the former judge heading the probe.

A preliminary procedural hearing began on Tuesday, with those who lost loved ones during the pandemic hoping for reassurance they will be able to share their stories with the inquiry directly.

There are fears they could be sidelined if they are only able to share their experiences through a Listening Project, which was established so members of the public can take part without formally giving evidence or attending a hearing.

This is due to begin later this year, with the inquiry expected to hold the first evidence hearings for its first module in late spring 2023.

Inquiry Chair Baroness Heather Hallett promised to be “fair” and “thorough” as she opened proceedings, but warned bereaved families she would not be able to cover every issue in as much detail “as some may wish”.

She said some people will be given core participant status, which gives them the right to the disclosure of documentation, the right to be represented and make legal submissions, suggest questions and receive advance notice of the inquiry’s report.

She added the proposed listening exercise “is to ensure that everyone across the UK who wishes to contribute to the inquiry can do so in a less formal setting…

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“The fact that someone contributes to the listening exercise will not prevent them from giving evidence at the public hearings of the inquiry if they have relevant evidence to give.

“I have taken no decisions as yet on the witnesses to be called so no-one has been barred from giving evidence.”

She promised the inquiry would “not drag on for decades, producing reports when it is too late for them to do any good”.

Baroness Heather Hallet opened the Covid-19 public inquiry in London on Tuesday Credit: PA Archive

“I promised the bereaved during the consultation process on the terms of reference that those who have suffered will be at the heart of the inquiry and I intend to keep that promise,” she said.

In previous public inquiries, such as those concerning the Grenfell Tower fire and Manchester Arena bombing, family and friends provided “pen portraits” of victims at the start of the formal hearings.

Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group are seeking assurances that their stories will be directly heard by Baroness Hallett.

Co-founder of the group Matt Fowler, whose father Ian died in hospital in April 2020, said: “I’ve been campaigning for the Covid inquiry for over two years now, after my dad’s death and that’s been with one goal: for lessons to be learnt from my loss that protects the lives of others in the future.

“Baroness Hallett herself has acknowledged that those lessons will only be possible if the experiences of the bereaved are listened to, and it’s absolutely critical that she sets out her plans tomorrow for how she will hear our stories directly.

“Anything less would be devastating for families like mine who have worked so tirelessly to get here and could cost lives in the future.”

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The group is expected to be granted core participant status at the hearing on Tuesday.

Core participants are individuals, organisations or institutions with a specific interest in the inquiry, who can access relevant evidence, make opening and closing statements and suggest lines of questioning to inquiry counsel.

The inquiry will examine the response to the pandemic and its impact in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, provide a factual account of what happened, and identify lessons that can be learned.

On Tuesday, Lady Hallett will lead a minute of “silence and reflection to commemorate the far-reaching impact the pandemic had on everyone’s lives”.

Inquiry counsel will provide an update on who has been granted core participant status, and set out in more detail the plans for the first module.

This will consider the extent to which the risk of a pandemic was properly identified and planned for.

The preliminary hearing had been due to take place in September, but was postponed to respect the period of national mourning following the death of the Queen.

The inquiry will be held at a venue on Bishop’s Bridge Road, in west London - where the second phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry has heard evidence.

Places inside the hearing centre will be available to members of the public on a first-come-first-served basis.

The hearing will also be livestreamed with a three-minute delay on the inquiry’s YouTube channel.

An inquiry spokeswoman said: “The inquiry has invited core participants to make representations about the listening exercise at tomorrow’s hearing.

“The listening exercise is for everyone who wishes to share their experience of the pandemic, including the bereaved.

“The inquiry has proposed that experiences shared will be collated, analysed and fed into the Inquiry hearings as evidence.

“This evidence will then be considered by the chair and will inform her reports and recommendations.

“No decisions have been made as to who will be called to give evidence at the inquiry’s hearings, so no-one has been barred from giving evidence.”