What’s Happening with the COVID-19 Public Inquiry in the UK?

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The prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, has announced an inquiry into the way the UK government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what you need to know…

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The COVID-19 Public Inquiry comes off the back of the UK having the worst death toll in Europe, with more than 127,000 of its citizens dying 28 days after a positive coronavirus test.

In this post, we’re going to detail the reasons why this COVID-19 inquiry is going to take place, what is likely to happen at the inquiry, and how long it will be before we see the results.

Why is There Going to Be a COVID-19 Inquiry?

An inquiry into the handling of the UK government’s COVID-19 measures has been pushed by critics for quite some time, and for good reason. 

These critics have accused the government of being too slow to impose lockdowns, a point Johnson and his ministers have taken on board. Johnson said of the inquiry: “This process will place the state’s actions under the microscope,” 

“Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future.”

The inquiry will also seek to examine why the UK has the highest death toll in Europe, and fifth worst in the world, with 127,629 dying within 28 days of a positive test. 

On top of the slow reaction to lock down and the high death toll, the government will also have to answer why Britain’s economy shrank by 9.8 percent in 2020. After all, this is the sharpest decline amongst the West’s richest nations.

The UK’s costly track and trace, furlough, business loan, and eat out to help out schemes will likely come under scrutiny when the inquiry looks into the country’s economic decline.

Finally, the COVID-19 inquiry will look into the care homes disaster in which the government transferred vulnerable patients to care homes, putting existing patients and staff at risk.

What Will Happen at the COVID-19 Inquiry? 

The government clearly has a lot to answer for, but what actually happens at a public inquiry?

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Public inquiries are investigations into issues of public concern. Unlike traditional court proceedings, where one side is trying to win over the other, inquiries seek to establish the facts of what happened and use them to learn lessons for the future. 

This means that the COVID-19 inquiry won’t have the power to hold individuals or organisations liable for their actions. Instead, the findings can be used in civil and court proceedings that could take place later on.  

There are two types of inquiries that could take place:

  • Statutory: these inquiries have specific rules they have to follow, including its establishment, the appointment of a chairperson and panel, the taking of witness testimony, and the delivery of recommendations. 
  • Non-statutory: these inquiries are more flexible as they don’t have to follow statutory rules. This means that they are often finished more quickly but they are also less meaningful as they don’t have the powers to put witnesses under oath.

The COVID-19 public inquiry is likely to be statutory, which means anyone who is called to provide evidence will have to comply by law or be tried under the 2005 Inquiries act. In England and Wales, you could receive up to 51 weeks in prison for not complying. 

Government ministers choose someone to chair the inquiry, usually a judge or an expert in the field the inquiry is looking into. The only stipulation is that they choose someone independent of the government. 

The chair of the inquiry then calls up witnesses to give evidence. The information is collated into a report that provides recommendations for the government to use next time they’re in the same position. 

The government is under no obligation to follow the recommendations of the inquiry, but ignoring them would make them appear irresponsible in the eyes of the electorate. 

When Will the COVID-19 Inquiry Take Place and How Long Before it Sees Results?

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The prime minister of the UK says he intends to launch the COVID-19 public inquiry in Spring 2022, citing a potential winter surge as his reason for the delay. 

There are no set time limits on how long statutory inquiries can run for due to the amount of evidence they’re expected to collect before they reach a conclusion. For reference, the Chilcot Inquiry took 7 years to see results and the Bloody Sunday Inquiry took 12 years.

There are currently 11 inquires taking place in the UK, which would make this the 12th ongoing inquiry. The cost of these inquiries to the taxpayer is substantial, and they have come under criticism from many who believe they’re a waste of money.

One of the issues holding a lot of these inquiries back is the timing of the UK’s general elections. No government wants these inquiries to reach a conclusion during an election campaign as they could overshadow the whole process. 

The COVID-19 inquiry will likely be either very short to try and squeeze it in before the next election cycle, or very long to overshoot it and avoid the risk of it taking over.

Will the Inquiry Make a Difference to the Way the UK Handles Future Pandemics? 

In this post, we’ve discussed why the COVID-19 public inquiry is taking place, what will happen at the inquiry, and how long it will be before a conclusion is reached.

Whether it helps the UK perfect the process of dealing with future pandemics remains to be seen. It will take a long time to reach a conclusion and won’t start until next spring. 

Even when a conclusion is finally reached, it’s up to whichever government is in power at the time to listen to the recommendations and make sure that when another pandemic does come along, they are ready to act.

Photo credits:

UK parliament – Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash 

Chamber – Photo by Hansjörg Keller on Unsplash 

Clock – Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash 

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