(First published in Public Sector Executive)
With the Coronavirus pandemic past its first peak in the UK, the government faces increasing scrutiny about how it has handled the outbreak. Whilst the present focus continues to be upon defeating the pandemic, the questions surrounding why it happened and whether the impact could have been mitigated to any extent, will soon need answers. A public inquiry is the likely forum to consider these questions and it is inevitable that public sector preparedness and response to the pandemic will be a significant focus.
Addleshaw Goddard's public inquiries team is currently instructed in both the Grenfell and Manchester Arena inquiries. Using that experience we set out below why there will be mounting pressure for a public inquiry into the Coronavirus response and what areas it might consider.
What is a public inquiry and why should there be one?
A public inquiry is conducted by a chairperson appointed by the government. The governing statute, the Inquiries Act 2005, reserves the right to establish an inquiry to Ministers of State. The central feature is that an inquiry addresses events which have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern.
The Inquiries Rules 2006 provide the chairperson with the power to designate a person, a group, or an organisation who has a direct and significant involvement or interest in the subject of the inquiry as a "core participant". The core participant will have rights to see evidence, attend hearings, make opening and closing submissions, and may be permitted to question witnesses.
The output of a public inquiry will include lessons learnt and recommendations. A select committee may follow up to make sure the government acts on recommendations by the inquiry.
In view of the death toll in the UK, and the unprecedented restrictions upon personal and commercial activity that have been employed to abate the spread of the virus, the criteria for a public inquiry are undoubtedly met.
Why not a Coronial Inquest?
The scale of the pandemic means that there are now more than 40,000 deaths in the UK from COVID-19. Guidance from the Chief Coroner confirms that COVID-19 is a naturally occurring disease which is capable of being a natural cause of death. In the absence of any additional factors, or suggestion that human failure contributed to the death, the vast majority of these deaths will not require an inquest, which means there will not be any public scrutiny of the reasons underlying those deaths. A public inquiry therefore becomes even more important.
What would a public inquiry into Covid-19 cover?
A public inquiry commences with its "terms of reference" being set out. These are the questions that the inquiry should address. In the case of the Coronavirus response, the terms of reference might focus on planning and preparation for any pandemic; the scientific advice given; decisions taken to prevent the virus spreading and how effective such measures were; provision of PPE; managing the virus within hospitals and care homes including discharging hospital patients without being tested to care homes; deaths of key workers; the disproportionate mortality rate within the BAME community; and the economic implications of the response to the virus.
We have seen the impact of health care professionals and others working in public services (public transport employees, care home workers, emergency services personnel) being exposed to the virus and questions have been raised about the support and protection available to them. A public inquiry would look at issues such as these.
There is still some way to go in defeating this pandemic. When it is over, the call for a public inquiry will be difficult to resist. Indeed Nicola Sturgeon has already confirmed that there will be one in Scotland. What is key is that from these future inquiries the right lessons are learned to ensure we are best placed to deal with any future pandemic.