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The government has responded to repeated calls for a public inquiry into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to hold a ‘proper, full and above-all, independent’ inquiry in spring 2022.

Boris Johnson told parliament that the government would be taking the necessary steps to ensure that the public inquiry was ready to begin in late spring next year, in order to ‘produce answers within a reasonable timeframe.’

The announcement will be welcomed by victims and their families. COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice have been pushing hard for an immediate statutory inquiry so that lessons can be learned ‘as quickly as possible in order to save lives as the virus spikes again around the country.’

The prime minister is now under renewed pressure to set out a detailed plan and timeframe. What does appear certain is that, once established, a COVID-19 public inquiry would dominate politics, the media and public attention for years to come.

Although the public inquiry is not expected to begin until spring 2022, other investigations into the Government’s handling of the pandemic are already underway. Dominic Cummings’ appearance before one such inquiry by a joint panel of the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Select Committees on 26 May gave an explosive insight into some of the alleged mistakes made by the Prime Minister and Health Secretary in responding to the crisis. Cummings’ appearance has served to demonstrate the urgent need for a full-scale public inquiry with the proper powers to interrogate his more outlandish claims by compelling other witnesses and documentary evidence.

What is a public inquiry?

A public inquiry is an investigation, convened by a government minister, into an issue of public concern. Unlike adversarial court proceedings, the purpose of an inquiry is to establish the facts of what happened and learn lessons for the future.

Although a public inquiry has no power to hold individuals or organisations liable for their actions or omissions, its findings can be used to inform subsequent criminal or civil proceedings.

Statutory vs non-statutory

Statutory inquiries are convened under the Inquiries Act 2005, which governs all aspects of the inquiry including its establishment, the appointment of a panel and the chairperson, the taking of witness evidence and the delivery of recommendations. A statutory inquiry will usually take place in public and has the power to compel witness testimony or documentary evidence from individuals and organisations.

Non-statutory inquiries have greater flexibility over how they operate as they do not have to comply with specific rules set out in statute. Whilst this means they are often conducted more swiftly and at a lower cost to the taxpayer, they are often regarded as less meaningful because participation is voluntary and they lack the powers to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath.

Terms of reference

The terms of reference set out the scope of the inquiry’s investigations and determine the issues that it will consider. They are often developed with input from those with a substantial interest in the issues being considered, known as core participants.

The scope of the COVID-19 Inquiry will be critical in determining how seriously it is taken by the public. Whether it takes a broad or narrow focus will also have a major impact on its length and cost to the public purse.

What key issues will the COVID-19 public inquiry cover?

The reasons for the UK’s high death rate compared to its European counterparts, the higher death rate amongst ethnic minorities and the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital and care home workers are some of the issues likely to be considered.

There have also been calls for a wider examination of the government’s procurement processes in relation to contracts awarded in response to the pandemic. A number of legal challenges have already been brought against the government in relation to its awarding of PPE and Covid-related contracts without proper tenders. Whether or not the government opens itself up to such scrutiny remains to be seen.

How long will the COVID-19 public inquiry last?

Although there are no set rules on the length of a public inquiry, they have a reputation for being slow-moving and cumbersome, in part due to the sheer volume of evidence and witness testimony that they are required to consider. They also come at a huge cost to the taxpayer, leading many to question their ultimate cost-effectiveness.

The timetable for the COVID-19 public inquiry is also likely to be influenced by the timing of the next general election. For political reasons, the government will not want the inquiry to dominate an election campaign. So if politics is to play a role then the inquiry is likely to be short (around 18 months at most) or have a very long window (three years or more).

Outcome of the COVID-19 public inquiry

The government will be under pressure from the outset of the COVID-19 public inquiry to demonstrate that they will accept any recommendations. Any sign of hesitation on this will be taken that it is not serious about learning lessons for the future.

According to the Institute for Government, ‘between 1990 and 2017, 46 inquiries made 2,791 recommendations’. There is no doubt that some of these recommendations have led to significant change, for example, the acceptance of the existence of institutional racism following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. However, a public inquiry has no power to determine civil or criminal liability and it is left up to the government to decide to what extent recommendations are implemented.

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