The bereaved will be “at the heart” of the Covid-19 public inquiry, its chair, Lady Hallett, has pledged at the first public hearing in the investigation into the UK’s handling of the pandemic, which the inquiry’s counsel described as an “unprecedented and vastly difficult undertaking”.
Opening the first module to a sprawling inquiry expected to run for several years, Hallett addressed anger from some of the bereaved that their testimonies may not be heard as direct evidence, by saying: “We shall ensure that those most affected, particularly the bereaved, will be properly consulted.”
But she said if they were consulted on every stage of the inquiry it “would go on forever”. She insisted her priority was to reach conclusions “before another disaster strikes the four nations of the United Kingdom” and would not allow the inquiry to “drag on for decades”.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group is upset Hallett is planning only a “listening exercise” to capture a cross-section of views among the hundreds of thousands of bereaved people in the UK. They want their evidence to be heard directly.
“There is a balance to be struck between making timely recommendations and the extent to which we explore every issue,” Hallett said.
Hugo Keith QC, counsel to the inquiry, also said it would need to be “ruthless” in its focus.
It is already set to consider the performance of the public health system, care homes, lockdowns, schooling, children, minorities, mental health, the economy and border controls among other issues.
A communications company is being sought to handle the listening exercise, which some of the bereaved have described as an attempt to “outsource the grief of bereaved families”.
In previous public inquiries, such as those into the Grenfell Tower fire and Manchester Arena bombing, family and friends provided “pen portraits” of victims at the start of the formal hearings. However, the UK pandemic toll of 204,776 people with Covid on their death certificate, is far higher.
“We feel very strongly that this inquiry should be focusing on the impact on the bereaved families and to do that our voices need to be heard inside the inquiry and taken as evidence,” said Fran Hall, who lost her husband, Steve Mead, 65, to Covid in October 2020.
Matt Fowler, a co-founder of the group, whose father, Ian, died in hospital in April 2020, said: “Anything less [than hearing the bereaved’s stories directly] would be devastating for families like mine who have worked so tirelessly to get here and could cost lives in the future.”
Hallett used her opening remarks to argue the listening exercise would “ensure everyone across the UK who wishes to contribute to the inquiry can do so in a less formal setting … their contributions will inform the inquiry about the impact of the pandemic”. She denied anyone had been barred from giving evidence.
Keith said the listening exercise would take accounts from tens or hundreds of thousands of people, which would be “analysed and summarised before being provided to the inquiry teams and the core participants” as written evidence.
Pete Weatherby QC, representing the Covid-19 bereaved group, said the inquiry’s terms of reference were “to listen to and consider carefully the experiences of bereaved families”. But, he said the listening exercise, “as cast up to now, does not do this”.He said that it marginalises “the bereaved and their voices”.
Hallett responded: “There is absolutely no question that the bereaved will be marginalised and I really don’t want to hear that expression again.”
Before starting proceedings with a minute’s silence, Hallett said: “There is one word that sums up the pandemic for so many and that is the word loss … millions of people suffered loss, including the loss of friends and family members, the loss of good health both mental and physical, economic loss, the loss of educational opportunities and the loss of social interaction. Those who were bereaved lost the most.”
The inquiry is divided into numerous modules to run in sequence. The first module, which opened on Tuesday, will examine the UK’s resilience and preparedness for the coronavirus pandemic. Evidence hearings will not start until next year.