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Covid-19: A year is too long to wait for UK inquiry’s recommendations, say bereaved families

BMJ 2023; 382 doi: (Published 10 August 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;382:p1853
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

With the first module of the UK’s Covid-19 Inquiry wrapped up, families who lost a loved one say that lessons must be learnt in time for the next pandemic. Gareth Iacobucci reports

The public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the covid pandemic should make swifter recommendations from its first tranche of hearings so that lessons can be learnt and acted on, representatives of bereaved families have urged.

Heather Hallett, a retired Court of Appeal judge and crossbench peer who is chairing the UK Covid-19 Inquiry,12 has promised to publish regular reports and recommendations as the inquiry progresses and to “work hard to ensure the whole of the UK can learn useful lessons from the pandemic as quickly as possible.”3 The inquiry’s first module, which focused on resilience and preparedness, concluded last month, and the inquiry expects to publish its report on the module in early summer 2024.

But the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK and Northern Ireland group—one of the core participants in the first module—argues that, for people who have lost loved ones to covid, next summer is too long to wait. Reflecting on the evidence that she heard during the first module,456 Naomi Fulop, a spokesperson for the group, whose mother died of covid in hospital in January 2021, told a media briefing on 2 August that the UK’s lack of preparedness had made her mother “a sitting duck.”

Fulop explained, “Her carers had no proper PPE, there was no proper test and trace or support for people to isolate. I wanted to give that illustration to show how this has impacted on people’s lives.” She added that the inquiry should make some recommendations before next year so that necessary changes could be made to prevent other families from going through what hers did. “We don’t have time . . . it’s not if there’s another pandemic, it’s when,” she said.

Brenda Doherty, another spokesperson for the group, who gave evidence to the inquiry last month, agreed. “I think one of the vital things about the inquiry . . . is that when we have opportunities to learn lessons, we learn them as soon as possible,” she said.

Doherty, whose mother died in hospital with covid, added, “It is really important for me that if something like this is to arise again, that I feel safe for future generations, that my grandchildren are not in the same position as my mum’s grandchildren were—where they weren’t able to carry her coffin . . . they weren’t able to see her. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we start looking now at what has come out and putting recommendations in place.”

Modules and teams

The families’ call for swift recommendations from the first module was echoed by the barrister Pete Weatherby, lead counsel to the group. He said, “Early next summer . . . is very late when you’re looking at some very important recommendations. Some of them are very straightforward, even though they’re very important. And if Lady Hallett has a view on them, then those should be brought out sooner rather than later.

“I don’t want to be too critical because it’s important that this is right. But given that they limited the scope of module 1, it is a bit perplexing that it’s going to take more or less a year to do the report.”

He added, “We know the inquiry is busy, but we also know that it’s got different teams working on different modules. So, it is a bit disappointing, and it would be good if Lady Hallett would look at producing at least some of the recommendations in advance of the report if it really is going to take till next summer.”

Evidence sessions for the second module, focusing on core UK decision making and political governance, will begin in October 2023. The other four modules will focus on the impact of the pandemic on the health systems of the four UK nations, as well as vaccines and therapeutics, government procurement, and the care sector.

Restricted process

The bereaved families also expressed frustration at the inquiry’s reluctance to allow their legal representatives to ask questions directly to witnesses, and they urged Hallett and her team to reconsider this stance in subsequent modules to allow more follow-up questions to be posed.

Nicola Brooks, solicitor for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said, “One of the biggest disappointments that we have had and our clients have had has been the limitation on our ability to put questions to witnesses ourselves. On many of the occasions when our applications [to ask questions directly] were rejected we were advised that counsel to the inquiry would be putting those kinds of issues to the witnesses themselves.

“There were occasions when we wished that follow-up questions had been asked in those circumstances. Our hope is that the inquiry doesn’t follow that same restricted approach for the forthcoming modules.”

Weatherby said that other high profile public inquiries offered “shining examples” of this type of approach that the covid inquiry could look to. “If you look at Hillsborough or the Manchester Arena Inquiry, for example, there was a dialogue between the advocates for the families and the inquiry team,” he said.

Doherty added that she would like to see witnesses “being pushed more” with follow-up questions. “I know we don’t want to go on forever, but at the same time, there’s no point in doing this and doing it at the cost that we’re doing it at if we don’t do more in-depth questioning,” she said. “It really is important that our legal teams get an opportunity to put questions to witnesses.”

The inquiry team has outlined three formal opportunities for core participants to contribute to questioning witnesses. The first is by providing comments on the evidence proposals setting out the topics that the inquiry proposes to cover with witnesses. The second is by proposing lines of questioning based on the final evidence proposal. The third is that core participants’ legal counsel can ask permission from the chair to ask witnesses additional questions when they have finished giving evidence. The inquiry team highlighted that this had happened during the first module hearings.

Northern Ireland inquiry

Separately, representatives of bereaved families in Northern Ireland said that a specific inquiry for the country should be considered, given its unique problems arising from its lack of a functioning executive.

Enda McGarrity, solicitor to Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said that the UK inquiry had identified failures in Northern Ireland’s preparedness but that it was so far only “scratching the surface in terms of how to address these failures.” He added, “We feel that a Northern Ireland inquiry could do that much more effectively: we would have the understanding of what happens when there isn’t an executive.”

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