This week sees the start of the second preliminary hearing in the Covid 19 inquiry – this time in relation to Module 2, which is concerned with political and administrative decision-making in relation to the pandemic, including decisions taken at the outset of the pandemic in early 2020. Counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, sought to lay out where the Inquiry stands on major procedural issues, and the Inquiry also listened to some Core Participants' submissions on how the Inquiry should proceed.
So what have we learned?
So far 38 Core Participants have been accepted for Module 2, including representatives of the bereaved, long Covid sufferers, the vulnerable, the elderly, children at risk and those with chronic mental and physical health needs, Government Departments and national bodies including the Local Government Association, the NHS, public health bodies, and organisations providing the government with scientific and medical evidence.
Module 2 scope
The provisional scope of Module 2 has been published. The Inquiry reiterated that with such a wide scope, it will have to be ruthless in its selection of issues and relentless in its focus on matters of real importance.
Rule 9 requests
The Inquiry has already issued Rule 9 requests to the following organisations for the purposes of Module 2: The Cabinet Office, Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, The Department of Health and Social Care, The Office of the Chief Medical Officer, The Government Office of Science, SAGE, Independent SAGE, The Home Office, His Majesty’s Treasury, The Department for Education, The Department for Transport, The Department for Levelling Up, The Department for Work and Pensions, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, The UK Health Security Agency, NHS England.
Those Rule 9 requests were described as lengthy, complex and wide-ranging. As a result, the Inquiry expects to receive many tens of thousands of documents for this module alone. The scale and scope of the documents potentially engaged will necessitate the Inquiry taking a targeted approach, focussing its requests on specific events, processes or decisions. It describes the planned process as “iterative”, with further requests being made after review and analysis of initial disclosure.
By way of example, from the Cabinet Office, the Inquiry sought agendas, minutes and other documents associated with the core decision-making fora such as Cabinet meetings, COBRA meetings and ministerial implementation groups. The Inquiry has asked for ministerial submissions, number 10 daily briefing documents, records of written and oral advice to ministers and details of internal communications including WhatsApp groups including the PM, number 10 and other senior officials.
The long list provided of recipients of Rule 9 requests also included members of SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group of Emergencies and Independent SAGE - the group of scientists that was unaffiliated to the government who worked together to provide independent scientific advice to the UK government and the public. The Inquiry has sent Rule 9 requests to very nearly all of the independent scientists who sat on those committees during the pandemic, amounting to 199 individuals in total. Similar requests have been sent to the independent SAGE Committee. The Rule 9 requests continue apace, and further requests are anticipated in due course to:
- civil society and special interest groups
- representative bodies of local authorities
- further scientists
- first ministers from the devolved administration and other ministers attending UK Cabinet meetings
- medical officers, deputy chief medical officers, scientific advisors, senior officials and public health England
- NHS England
- senior civil servants, certain political advisors, the then PM and other key ministers.
Many of the organisations which have received Rule 9 requests are also asked to provide a chronology and corporate statement.
Disclosure to Core Participants
The Inquiry team reiterated that all Core Participants will receive the same disclosure, subject to a relevance review, a de-duplication exercise and redactions in accordance with the Inquiry’s redactions protocol. Disclosure is likely to be made in tranches. The electronic disclosure system used to provide documents will be Relativity. It is still anticipated that disclosure will commence before Christmas.
Expert material: instruction of expert witnesses and Module 2
The Inquiry team have started to draw up a list of provisionally suitable experts and written reports will be shared with the Core Participants. The Inquiry team have provisionally identified a number of areas in relation to which witnesses are likely to give evidence, however the Inquiry team welcome the identification by Core Participants of further areas of importance for witnesses. It will consider all suggestions bearing in mind the guiding principles to the Inquiry.
Listening Exercise and Commemoration
The Inquiry is in the process of designing its listening exercise. In the listening exercise, experiences of the pandemic across the whole of the UK are to be heard, recorded, analysed and summarised before being admitted into the formal record of the inquiry. The summaries of the listening exercise and accompanying analysis will be fed into the public hearings from Module 3 onwards as evidence so that it can inform the Inquiry’s understanding of the impact of the pandemic and response and lessons to be learned. It will also be disclosed to Core Participants.
The Inquiry will start piloting different approaches for the listening exercise very shortly. This will include the introduction in November 2022 of a new part of the Inquiry website, which will invite people to share their experiences. Later in the Winter and into the Spring, a pilot in person and online will start with group sessions. Over time those trials will increase in scale until the listening exercise is running at full capacity next year.
The trials will take place in different locations across the UK and will target different types of people in different groups. The initial listening will be undertaken by IPSOS on behalf of the Inquiry, but in combination with organisations that might be needed such as community outreach groups and experts in trauma.
A consortium will gather those experiences alongside members of the Inquiry team so that they can be properly analysed and summarised before being placed into a form that can be admitted into the record.