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Home / News and Insights / Insights / Cummings is coming to town: What Dominic Cummings’ Select Committee appearance means for the COVID-19 Public Inquiry

The widely anticipated Select Committee appearance of the PM’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, may dominate headlines but its real impact will be on the forthcoming COVID-19 public inquiry.

Cummings’ release of a Twitter thread detailing some of his criticisms of the government’s approach to the pandemic was part of his attempt to dominate the Select Committee session and the media / social media discussions. It also ensured that the issues would be looked at not just on the day of his appearance.

What is the Select Committee and what does Dominic Cummings’ involvement mean?

The stated focus of the inquiry, being run jointly by the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, is on the lessons learned but Cummings seems to be looking to apportion blame as well. That, it has to be recognised, will be part of the agenda for some involved in the COVID-19 public inquiry as well. There is always a fine line between ‘lessons learned’ and ‘who was to blame’.

The joint Select Committee is faced with a clear choice – it can follow the line of inquiry set up by Cummings in his Twitter feed or go into other areas. The chairs are expert and well placed to ask challenging questions – Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP (ex-Secretary of State for Health) and Rt Hon Greg Clark MP (ex-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). Both have already proved themselves very adept Committee chairs.

The Select Committee report will be one of a number which will ‘feed into’ the eventual public inquiry and there can be no doubt that that any such reports are being drafted with at least one eye on the public inquiry.

What is the scope of the Select Committee and what questions will it ask Dominic Cummings?

In many ways, the questions set as the terms of the Select Committee inquiry reflect the potential terms of reference for the COVID-19 public inquiry.

Key issues they will consider include:

  • the deployment of non-pharmaceutical interventions like lockdown and social distancing rules to manage the pandemic;
  • the impact on the social care sector;
  • the impact on BAME communities and other at-risk groups;
  • testing and contact tracing;
  • modelling and the use of statistics;
  • government communications and public health messaging;
  • the UK’s prior preparedness for a pandemic; and
  • the development of treatments and vaccines.

It is anticipated that the Select Committee will ask Dominic Cummings questions around decisions made during his time working in government relating to:

  • the initial response to the threat of COVID-19;
  • the level of scientific evidence available to the government;
  • the government’s border policy;
  • the effectiveness of public health messaging during the pandemic;
  • the timing of the March and November lockdowns and other restrictions;
  • procurement processes; and
  • community testing and tracing.

What will be the outcome of this Select Committee?

Given the limited resources at the disposal of a Select Committee and the shorter period of time that it has to look at the extensive list of issues there is a limit to what it can achieve. But it can still impact on the reputations of those involved and set the tone and approach for the public inquiry.

It also lacks the independence of a public inquiry. Select Committees are, after all, creatures of Parliament and Members of Parliament.

So, in some ways, it is a mini public inquiry; a taster of what is to come.

How much impact will Dominic Cummings’ Select Committee appearance have?

As Patrick Maguire notes in The Times Red Box, the public do not trust Cummings so whatever he says to the Select Committee will be questioned.

However, during a public inquiry, it may be that a series of individuals and organisations get involved and tell a similar story. The people involved in the public inquiry will, for the most part, be trusted and proper experts in the absolute detail of the issues.

The government may try and deflect the headlines for a single appearance by Cummings but cannot do that for the entire time that a public inquiry is sitting.

What will this mean for people engaging with the COVID-19 public inquiry?

Those involved in the public inquiry will need to consider all aspects of their engagement. Some of the more key individuals and organisations could be given special status as a ‘core participant’. This gives them, amongst other privileges, the ability to make opening and closing statements, advance sight of evidence and the opportunity to put questions to other witnesses, albeit through Counsel to the Inquiry.

In an age when every statement and statistics can be the subject of attack, criticism, support, misuse and abuse, particularly across social media, then all those involved need to consider their reputations as well. Communications will be a key aspect of the public inquiry because it will be played out across the media.

Why is the COVID-19 public inquiry so significant?

It is the probably the most important public inquiry ever. Why? Because every single person in the country has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. From school children through to those furloughed; from those unable to see loved ones as we have lived in lockdown isolation through to those, of course, who have lost loved ones.

The ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have been massive. And the ramifications of the public inquiry will be too.

Speak to our public inquiries team about engaging with the COVID-19 public inquiry

BDB Pitmans is home to one of the UK’s leading teams specialising in representation for participants in public inquiries and select committee inquiries and investigations. We have been involved in many of the most high-profile public inquiries and investigations of recent years, including The Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the Infected Blood Inquiry, the Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and the Iraq Fatality Investigations. We have also represented individuals and organisations at high-profile inquests, and provided the secretariat to a number of them, including the Tunisia Inquests, Westminster Bridge and Palace of Westminster Inquests, the London Bridge and Borough Market Inquests and the Fishmongers’ Hall Inquests.

If you are expecting to give evidence to the COVID-19 public inquiry or any of the related Select Committees, we would be happy to advise you.

You can find out more about our public inquiries expertise or contact Matthew Smith, Partner in our public law team, for an initial discussion.

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