The Covid-19 Inquiry – How Might You Get Involved?

By Nick Wrightson, Partner in the Public Law team at Kingsley Napley LLP (www.kingsleynapley.co.uk)

The UK-wide public inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is now getting into gear and it is expected to begin hearing evidence this summer. The inquiry is an important opportunity to secure political accountability and useful and timely recommendations for the future. Covid-19 has affected all of us, so the inquiry is likely to be especially long running and wide ranging. There will be a particular focus on the health and care sector, so readers of ‘The Carer’ may well have a role to play.

What is the latest on the care sector from the inquiry?
The UK Covid-19 inquiry formally began at the end of June 2022 when its finalised terms of reference were published. A key theme in the terms of reference is the pandemic response of the health and care sectors, including exploration of the impact on care workers and the management of the pandemic in care homes and other care settings.

In the six months since that time, three inquiry ‘modules’ (i.e. staged investigations targeted at different subjects) have been launched. These will address: (1) resilience and pandemic preparedness; (2) political and administrative decision-making; and (3) how healthcare systems responded to the pandemic. All three investigations may be relevant to the care sector. We will learn more about Module 3 at an initial hearing on 28 February 2023 and further preliminary hearings in Modules 1 and 2 will also take place this spring.

In her Opening Statement of July 2022, the Chair, Baroness Hallett, made clear there are plenty more modules to come, one of which is likely to cover “the care sector” specifically. The precise scope and timetable for these remains unclear.

Finally, people who suffered during the pandemic will be at the heart of the inquiry’s work, and it will be rolling out ways (like this invitation) of capturing their experiences – including in care settings.

Ways of becoming involved

You or your organisation may be called upon to participate in the UK Covid-19 inquiry. The Chair or her lawyers can do this by sending you a formal request to provide documents or witness statements.

Those with relevant evidence to give who resist being involved may receive a section 21 notice directing them to contribute or face serious consequences.

You or your organisation can also volunteer to participate if you believe you have a valuable perspective to contribute to a particular module. Whereas the role of information providers and witnesses tends to be limited to submitting evidence and answering questions, those who wish to be actively engaged in a particular module can apply for formal ‘core participant’ status. This confers special rights, such as the opportunity to make opening and closing statements, access documents disclosed by the inquiry and ask questions at hearings.

You may wish to stay abreast of the news coming out of the inquiry in order to monitor the likelihood of being drawn in, as well as to assess the potential benefits of volunteering to play a part. Seeking legal advice early on is highly recommended to help inform your calculations. Once interim reports start to be published you may find them interesting, relevant and useful.

If you are a potential witness or someone keen to see particular lines of enquiry pursued by the inquiry, you might consider contacting the inquiry’s lawyers to outline what you think you might contribute and seek guidance on whether this would be welcome. If you want to be a core participant, your chances will undoubtedly be improved if you: (a) apply when the inquiry asks you to; and (b) club together with others who speak for similar interest groups or experiences – possibly through representative bodies like Care England or the National Care Association, rather than going solo.

Important first steps to take
If you think you or your organisation may have a role to play in the UK Covid-19 inquiry (voluntarily or otherwise), it is important to start thinking ahead.

In particular, make sure now that all the potentially relevant documents and information under your control are carefully preserved and, to the extent possible, get them organised so they can be accessed and analysed when the time comes.

Since this inquiry may last several years, key staff are likely to move on. Consider documenting their recollections and explanations now, therefore, or else make provision for them to provide input in future.

Public inquiries sometimes only give 2-3 weeks to respond to requests for documents and witness statements and they take a dim view of excuses involving previously available information or personnel becoming inaccessible.

If you hold a lot of relevant material or are highly likely to become involved, consider allocating resources to dealing with the inquiry now, for example assigning management responsibility, funds and staff.

Finally, speak to a public inquiry specialist. Potential witnesses and core participants should seek legal advice and representation to understand their roles and the opportunities and risks associated with their involvement.

Sign up for all the latest news from The Carer!

Sign up to receive the latest issues, along with highlights of the latest sector news and more from The Carer, delivered directly to your inbox twice a week!