The public inquiry into the pandemic
As is now well-known, the Government has confirmed that there will in due course be a public inquiry into the Covid 19 pandemic. It is said that this will take place in 2022 on the basis that the focus needs to remain on dealing with the pandemic itself and the inquiry can come later. There must presumably therefore be a risk that if there are continuing infection issues, the commencement date will be pushed back.
The formal arrangements for the inquiry have not been announced although it is likely that this will be an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. This provides that a Government minister can arrange for an inquiry “in relation to a case where it appears to him the particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern”. The pandemic clearly comes within these criteria.
The inquiry will be led by a chair. The chair is usually legally qualified (commonly a senior judge, or a retired judge) but this is not essential. It may, for example, be felt that someone with medical or virology expertise is more appropriate here.
The chair will have wide-ranging powers to direct the inquiry within the scope of the terms of reference set by the Minister. There will clearly be much political and media debate about those terms of reference. However, the issues are likely to be wide-ranging, clearly incorporating issues of concern to the health and social care sector, but also wider political issues. Topics are likely to include:
- restrictions on travel and border entry
- procurement of PPE
- accuracy and promulgation of Government guidance
- test and trace system
- lockdown measures
- the spread of Covid 19 in health and care settings
Any inquiry is likely to take a considerable time. The longest inquiry on record related to hyponatraemia and took over 13 years to complete! Even if an inquiry does start in 2022, it would be surprising if it is concluded by 2025.
Impact on health and social care providers
The inquiry, if set up under the 2005 Act, will have the power to summon witnesses and procure documents. Clearly information will be required on the impact of the issues referred to above on the front-line delivery of care. Whilst much evidence will come from public sector witnesses, it is to be anticipated that specific providers (presumably across the size spectrum) will be asked to contribute their own evidence, either on a mandatory or voluntary basis depending on how wide-ranging the inquiry terms of reference and processes seek to be.
Providers will be well advised to ensure that they have a clear record of the steps taken during the pandemic matched up against the existing guidance at particular points in time. Many may already find that it is hard to recall now what exactly they were doing and why at a given point in time over the last 15 months. Our previous guidance note (see link) indicated the type of evidence and documentation that providers would be well advised to ensure is complete and up-to-date.
This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur LLP accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.