The Covid-19 Inquiry – how to get your voice heard

10 February 2022

The forthcoming public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic will be like no other public inquiry which has gone before. Covid-19 caused huge loss of life, but rather than focusing predominantly upon the effect of acts or omissions upon the bereaved families directly affected, the Inquiry will seek to make findings in respect of the government handling of a pandemic where the decisions under scrutiny impacted upon every aspect of the life of every citizen in the UK. This will necessarily be an inquiry which is directed at strategic rather than granular decision making. This fact is reflected in the draft terms of reference for the separate Covid Inquiry established by the Scottish Government.

Whilst it has already been acknowledged and emphasised that those most affected by the pandemic, in particular the bereaved, must have an opportunity to play a proper part in the Inquiry, it is apparent that in order to be able to manage the evidence and report within a reasonable time, the format of the inquiry will need to be radically different from previous inquiries. It is obviously not practicable to call thousands of witnesses to give evidence covering every aspect of the effect of the pandemic. Attempts to identify individuals or businesses as representing the experience of a particular geographical area, group or business sector will inevitably give rise to an assertion that every experience is different and one cannot represent all.

The most equitable practical solution would appear to be to grant Core Participant status to professional and business or trade associations who are arguably in the best position to present the most balanced picture of the overall experience of the group or sector that they represent. There is some support for the view that the Inquiry might take this approach. In April 2020 the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy identified a number of organisations or associations as having a legitimate interest in the support of sectors identified as being affected by the pandemic.  It would be difficult for the inquiry now to reject the obvious interest of such organisations. Any application for Core Participant status by such organisations is likely to be looked on favourably, because it is obviously an efficient and effective way of ensuring that a comprehensive and balanced evidential picture emerges.

In addition to limiting the number of core participants the sheer scale of the inquiry means that it seems likely that the inquiry will use Rule 10 of the Inquiry Rules 2006 to restrict the questioning of witnesses. This is unusual but not unprecedented, but means that thorough preparation before the start of the oral hearings is essential.

The practical effect of the above is that those who want their voices heard at the inquiry must be proactive.  This inquiry is likely to be the only opportunity to be heard and to have an impact on recommendations for change.  To have a voice, individuals and businesses need to identify their relevant association, liaise effectively, encourage participation, identify issues and provide evidence. Do this now, during the phase in which the Inquiry is taking shape.  Don’t leave it too late to get involved. This is the opportunity to have an impact on the outcome of possibly the most far-reaching Inquiry in decades.


Authors

Fiona Barton KC

Call 1986 | Silk 2011

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