We do not yet know the detail of the terms of reference for the Public Inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic and its handling, but it seems likely there will be a number of areas where local authorities either collectively or individually will have a role to play. At a sector level we would anticipate that there may be scope for the LGA and its equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland to have a role as a core participant, and this may involve co-ordinating evidence and responses on a range of issues. Some local authorities may wish to submit evidence directly, or indeed be asked to supply such evidence.
What do we see as the likely areas of local government involvement at this stage?
There may well be some specific local issues which the Inquiry wants to look at, but at a more general level there are a number of issues that it is likely to be investigating where local government will need to be heard:
- Test and trace. The government very deliberately went down the route of establishing a separate new national scheme for this process, which certainly initially raised questions of whether it was by-passing local public expertise and staff who could have played a more useful role. Would that have been more effective? Could it have coped with the scale of the issues, or at least some of them?
- Wider public health roles in relation to management of the pandemic, in particular the relationship between central government, the NHS and local government. This could include management of the tiering system, arrangements for the vaccination programme, and implementation and enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions.
- Delays in the distribution of PPE to those working in social care and with vulnerable people, including social workers and care home staff. What were the implications of the delays and how could they have been avoided?
- The impact of Covid-19 on social care provision, including management of hospital discharges, maintaining provision for service users and whether the relaxation of powers and duties was useful or effective.
- Local authority grant management both in connection with the support arrangements for social care providers and also more widely for the local economy. Were local authorities too bureaucratic, or too slow to distribute money? If true, how far was this a local government responsibility or due to other factors?
- More widely again how far were local authorities able to maintain services to their residents, and how could this have been improved?
There may well be other issues that arise.
What should local authorities be doing now?
Perhaps the first question is to ask is, to what extent does any particular authority want to be involved? Whilst it is anticipated the Inquiry will have powers to require the production of evidence, it will no doubt want to manage this, and there may be an option for local authorities to choose whether to volunteer information or views or not. However as public bodies it is likely that the sector will be looked at in some detail, and either collectively or individually we would expect Councils to want to make sure their side of the story is heard as part of the process.
If you are intending to submit evidence on a topic it is important to ensure that the contemporaneous documents are preserved and accessible and to start thinking about who can give the evidence or witness statement.