The first preliminary hearing in the UK COVID-19 Inquiry took place on 4 October 2022.
This hearing was mainly about Module 1 but the Chair, Baroness Hallett, and Counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, also explained the proposed approach to future modules and the Inquiry's listening project.
Scope of Module 1
Module 1 will focus on the UK's high level pandemic resilience, preparedness and planning across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. . However, Counsel to the Inquiry stressed that outline of the scope of the module that has been published on the Inquiry's website is provisional and Baroness Hallett emphasised that the order and scope of later modules "are not yet set in stone".
130 applicants asked to become core participants in Module 1 but only 28 were successful.
Nine core participants made written submissions before the preliminary hearing and seven made oral submissions at the hearing itself. Those included the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice organisations (the UK-wide group and those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) and the Trades Union Congress.
Eight UK Government Departments are core participants in Module 1 and ADPH raised a concern that there is a potential for imbalance give the limited number of core participants that can provide a local government perspective. ADPH's views is that local authorities should have been a significant part of the UK’s preparedness for the pandemic and suggested that the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and the Association of Directors of Children's Services, who are not core participants in Module 1, may be able to assist the Inquiry with matters relating to local government.
Other core participants made submissions about the approach that may be taken by the Inquiry during its investigation, including in relation to expert evidence. The Department of Health for Northern Ireland suggested that the Inquiry should consider the appointment of a combination of national and international experts as many of those within the UK who are experts in relevant fields will have had some role in the UK's pandemic response which is being investigated.
NHS National Services Scotland expressed concern about the overlap between the UK Inquiry and the Scottish Inquiry due to (1) the burden that responding to two inquiries will place on it; and (2) the potential for different or contradictory findings and recommendations being made.
Requests for evidence
The Inquiry has started to gather evidence for Module 1. Counsel to the Inquiry confirmed that requests for evidence relating to decision-making on pandemic preparedness between June 2009 and January 2020 have already been issued to three UK Government departments.
These will be followed in the next few weeks by requests to other UK Government departments and the governments of the devolved nations. Following a suggestion by the TUC, the Inquiry will also consider issuing a request to the Health and Safety Executive.
The listening exercise
The listening exercise is intended to ingather evidence of the experiences of those who suffered loss owing to the pandemic. The Inquiry intends to analyse and summarise this evidence and it will be anonymised.
The Chair confirmed that those providing evidence to the listening exercise will not give evidence in public hearings. This has attracted some criticism from those who are representing bereaved families but the Chair has stated that there is "absolutely no question that the bereaved will be marginalised" and that she is "determined that those who have suffered will be at the heart of this inquiry."
The next preliminary hearing for Module 1 will be held early in 2023 in London. and the main public hearings for Module 1 will take place in London in May 2023 and are expected to last for four weeks.
The Inquiry has also fixed the preliminary hearing for Module 2 (relating to core political and administrative decision-making in the UK) for 31 October. The preliminary hearing for Module 2A (in relation to Scotland) will take place on 1 November and those for Modules 2B and 2C (Wales and Northern Ireland) will take place on 2 and 3 November.