Loss and suffering at heart of Covid inquiryon October 4, 2022 at 11:09 am

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Inquiry chair Baroness Hallett promises ‘thorough and fair’ review at first preliminary hearing.

Woman writes on Covid memorial wall in LondonImage source, Getty Images

The first preliminary hearing of the UK Covid public inquiry has begun.

The one-day hearing had originally been scheduled last month but was delayed after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

The session, in London, is focusing on the UK’s pandemic preparedness before 2020.

At this stage, it involves lawyers and an announcement about who will be giving evidence. Public hearings where witnesses are called will not start until the spring.

The inquiry formally started in the summer, with a listening exercise.

But this first preliminary hearing is still being seen as an important milestone for the families who lost loved ones.

‘We need answers and people held to account’

Sylvia Jackson

Image source, Family photo

Lindsay Jackson’s mother, Sylvia, 87, died from Covid during the first lockdown, after contracting it at a care home.

Ms Jackson, of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, said it was essential lessons were learned.

She was “really pleased” the inquiry was finally starting but it had taken too long to reach this stage.

“It’s two-and-a-half years since the pandemic started,” she said.

“We lost so many people. If people have done things wrong, they need to be held accountable.

“For me, my family and the others who lost loved ones, it’s important that answers are found to the questions that we have.”

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The inquiry: What you need to know

A portrait of Baroness Hallett

Image source, UK Parliament

Chaired by former High Court judge Baroness Hallett, the inquiry is so wide ranging it has had to be split into separate sections – or modules, as they are being called.

The content of the first three has been announced|:

  • planning and preparedness
  • political decision-making
  • health care

The topics of further modules will be announced in 2023.

They are likely to cover issues such as:

  • vaccines
  • the care sector
  • government procurement
  • test-and-trace
  • business and finance
  • devolution
  • education
  • health inequalities

The preliminary hearing for module two – political decision-making at the start of the pandemic between January and March 2020, including the timing of the first lockdown – is expected to be in November

Public hearings for module one are expected to start in the spring and then for module two later in 2023.

The inquiry can compel witnesses to give evidence and release documents but cannot prosecute or fine anyone.

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Several reports have already put the UK government’s handling of the pandemic at the start under the spotlight.

Last year, a report by MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee said the UK’s failure to do more to stop Covid spreading early in the pandemic was one of the country’s worst public health failures.

It said the government approach – backed by its scientists – to try to manage the situation and in effect achieve herd immunity by infection had delayed the first lockdown, costing thousands of lives.

And a report by spending watchdog the National Audit Office, published in late 2021, found ministers had not been properly prepared for a pandemic like Covid-19 and lacked detailed plans on:

  • shielding
  • job-support schemes
  • school disruption

One issue likely to come under scrutiny in module one is how much was learned from Exercise Cygnus, a 2016 government exercise simulating a flu pandemic.

Meanwhile, Lady Poole, the judge appointed, in December, to lead the inquiry into the Scottish government’s Covid response has resigned from the role for personal reasons.

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