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Covid Inquiry Consultation – Limited period of time to have your say on draft Terms of Reference

Background

In May 2021 the Prime Minister announced that there would be a full scale inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic. The Inquiry is set to examine the UK’s preparedness and response to the Covid-19 pandemic and to learn lessons for the future. The Inquiry’s Chair, Baroness Hallett, has committed to running an independent, thorough and open Inquiry. The Chair has indicated that she hopes to begin public hearings in 2023.

One of the initial actions of the Inquiry was to write to Permanent Secretaries explaining the obligation to preserve material relevant to the Inquiry (including all correspondence including messages on social media platforms such as WhatsApp), pursuant to the Inquiries Act 2005 and reminding them that departments risk criminal prosecution for any attempt to alter, destroy or prevent release of documents. Departments and devolved administrations were asked to take steps to ensure that they communicated with all relevant bodies including any who exercised public functions, to remind them of their obligations regarding the preservation of material of potential relevance.

On 10 March 2022, the Inquiry’s draft Terms of Reference were published and a public consultation commenced on the draft Terms of Reference which runs to 7 April.

What do I need to know?

There is a limited period of time to respond to this consultation and have your say on the draft Terms of Reference. This is an important step and organisations should take the publication of the draft Terms of Reference as a signal that the Inquiry is set to get underway with gathering evidence in the near future and take steps to prepare accordingly.

The Inquiry will involve organisations in the health and care sectors and those in local government, education, housing and organisations supporting the homeless. The Inquiry is also set to consider the impact of the pandemic and the steps taken by government, for example the impact of restriction regulations on those in the leisure and travel industries.

Draft Terms of Reference

The draft Terms of Reference set out the scope and aims of the Inquiry and these are predictably very wide ranging. The functions of and actions taken by a wide range of departments and organisations will be examined as part of the Inquiry. The following is a summary of some of the topics which the Inquiry will look into:

  1. Preparedness and resilience
  2. How decisions were made, communicated and implemented
  3. Intergovernmental decision-making
  4. Shielding and the protection of the clinically vulnerable
  5. The use of lockdowns and other ’non-pharmaceutical’ interventions such as social distancing and the use of face coverings
  6. Testing and contact tracing, and isolation
  7. Restrictions on attendance at places of education
  8. The closure and reopening of the hospitality retail, sport and leisure sectors, and cultural institutions
  9. Housing and homelessness
  10. The safeguarding of public funds and management of financial risk.

Specifically, in relation to the health and care sector across the UK, the Inquiry will look at a range of issues which include (but are not limited to):

  1. Preparedness, capacity and resilience
  2. The management of the pandemic in hospitals
  3. The management of the pandemic in care homes and other care settings
  4. The consequences of the pandemic on provision for non-COVID related conditions and needs
  5. The provision for those experiencing long-COVID.

The final area of inquiry will look at the economic response to the pandemic and its impact, including government interventions by way of:-

  1. Support for businesses and jobs, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other schemes, business rates relief and grants
  2. Additional funding for relevant public services
  3. Benefits and sick pay, and support for vulnerable people.

Public Consultation on the Draft Terms of Reference

The consultation on the draft Terms of Reference is not an invitation for organisations, departments or the public to submit evidence. The purpose of the consultation is to seek views on:

  • Whether the Inquiry’s draft Terms of Reference cover all the areas that you think should be covered by the Inquiry?
  • Which issues or topics do you think the Inquiry should look at first?
  • Whether you think the Inquiry should set a planned end-date for its public hearings, so as to help ensure timely findings and recommendations?
  • How should the Inquiry be designed and run to ensure that bereaved people or those who have suffered harm or hardship as a result of the pandemic have their voices heard?

The Inquiry website has confirmed that once the Terms of Reference are finalised, more detail will be made available on the different areas of investigation and the gathering of evidence.

The Inquiry has said that it will publish a summary of the consultation responses when it shares its recommended Terms of Reference with the Prime Minister.

The consultation is seeking information in a number of ways. These are:

  • Online consultation: this is via an online survey that will invite public views on the draft Terms of Reference for the Inquiry.
  • Round table discussions: A series of roundtable discussions with key organisations and representative groups will be held across the UK. Participation in these round table discussions are by invite only.
  • Meetings with bereaved families: The Chair will also meet with small groups of bereaved families across the UK as part of the consultation process.

What Next?

Organisations should now carefully consider whether they wish to make any representations on the Inquiry’s draft Terms of Reference, either by way of online response or through engagement with representative groups or if appropriate, via the proposed series of round table discussions. Organisations will likely wish to consider:

  • Whether the pandemic and/or central or devolved government’s decision making in response to the pandemic impacted on them and whether the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference will include an examination of that impact
  • Whether the Terms of Reference are sufficiently clear in relation to those matters which touch upon them.
  • Whether the Inquiry will adequately examine the present impact the effects of the pandemic are having on their ability to operate and ongoing support requirements
  • Whether the Inquiry will adequately examine the support required in order to be adequately prepared in future in the event of a similar event.

We can assist in a number of ways:

  • Providing you with support in making representations and responding to the consultation
  • Advising on the consultation process
  • Preparing information and evidence
  • Representation and advice during the Inquiry process including during formal hearings.

To find out more about how we can help, please contact Ian Manners, Partner in our Business Risk and Regulation team.

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