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Covid inquiry: Those who suffered will be at its heart, Baroness Hallett vows

The former judge promised that the inquiry would ‘not drag on for decades, producing reports when it is too late for them to do any good’.

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Bereaved families and people who suffered will be at the heart of the Covid-19 public inquiry, its chairwoman has said as she promised to be “fair” and “thorough”.

Former Court of Appeal judge Baroness Heather Hallett opened the inquiry in London saying she planned to investigate the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, the Government’s response, and its impact on patients, NHS and social care staff and the public.

Potentially hundreds of thousands of people are expected to share their experiences through a formal listening exercise, while there will be a permanent tribute to people who died set up in the hearing hall.

Lady Hallett started Tuesday’s hearing by leading a minute’s silence for those who died, saying: “There’s one word that sums up the pandemic for so many, and that is the word ‘loss’.”

She added: “Those who are bereaved lost the most. They lost loved ones and the ability to mourn properly.”

Dozens of lawyers stood with their heads bowed and hands clasped.

Lady Hallett said the inquiry would analyse how the pandemic unfolded and determine whether the “level of loss was inevitable or whether things could have been done better”.

She continued: “My principal aim is to produce reports and recommendations before another disaster strikes the four nations of the UK and, if it is possible, to reduce the number of deaths, the suffering and the hardship.

“I have a duty to the public to conduct a thorough, fair and independent inquiry for the whole of the UK and I intend to do so.”

She added: “I promised the bereaved during the consultation process on the terms of reference that those who have suffered will be at the heart of the inquiry and I intend to keep that promise.”

Addressing issues raised by bereaved families, she said she would not be able to cover every concern raised or every issue in as much detail “as some may wish”.

She assured families that “no decision will be taken lightly”, as she promised to look at the use of do-not-resuscitate orders in the NHS and the quality of care given to people.

Lady Hallett said contributing to the listening exercise will not prevent people from giving evidence at the public hearings of the inquiry, “if they have relevant evidence to give”.

“I have taken no decisions as yet on the witnesses to be called so no-one has been barred from giving evidence,” she continued.

Pete Weatherby KC, representing the UK-wide Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said families had experienced “substantial frustration” amid delays in getting the inquiry formally started, and there are now concerns about engagement from the inquiry team.

He said: “We seek a two-way street.

“We seek the inquiry to come to us, as well as us coming to the inquiry to discuss important matters which either directly engage the bereaved or which the bereaved have a central position in trying to assist the inquiry, for example, the scope of the modules… and that does, with the greatest of respect, identify the problem – this idea of dialogue has to come from both sides.

“And to some degree that is what’s missing at the moment.”

Responding, Lady Hallett said there is “absolutely no question that the bereaved will be marginalised”.

Concerns about the scope of the first module include how it addresses devolved issues, the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on black and brown communities, other ethnic minority communities, and care homes and places of detention, Mr Weatherby said.

Ronan Lavery KC, representing bereaved families in Northern Ireland, said their concern is that they should have a “real role” in the probe and are not dealt with as a “footnote”.

Claire Mitchell KC, for the Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, called for any commemorative or memorial tribute to people who had lost their lives to be “mobile” and not just based in London.

Kirsten Heaven, representing Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, said there were concerns in Wales that the preliminary scope of the first module “does not set out in any detail the issues specific to Wales”, adding: “It is vitally important that the people of Wales can have confidence that this public inquiry will scrutinise decision making in Wales in response to the pandemic.”

The inquiry is expected to last at least a year.

Module 1 will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic, with a second preliminary hearing set for early 2023 and a provisional four weeks of evidence starting in May.

The four-week timescale was described as “completely unrealistic” by Elkan Abrahamson, one of the lawyers representing bereaved families.

Some 28 individuals and organisations have been granted core participant status for the first module, which gives them specific rights.

These include groups representing the bereaved in each UK nation, the NHS, the UK Health Security Agency, a number of Government departments, the Local Government Association, the National Police Chiefs’ Council, the Trades Union Congress and the British Medical Association.

Clinically Vulnerable Families, the group that supports all clinically vulnerable people to allow them to live their lives fully, said members are “hugely disappointed” they were not granted core participant status, saying their experiences “must be considered at every stage”.

The inquiry has been split into three modules, with more to be announced.

Module 2 will examine decisions taken by the prime minister and the cabinet, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

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