Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

UK public inquiry pledged into state Covid response

Out-Law News | 13 May 2021 | 3:45 pm | 1 min. read

The state’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic will be scrutinised in a full and independent public inquiry that will commence in spring 2022, prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed.

The inquiry is to be conducted on a statutory basis with “full powers” under the Inquiries Act 2005, Johnson said in a statement before the UK parliament on Wednesday.

Julian Diaz-Rainey of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, who has acted in relation to numerous public inquiries, said: “The fact this will be a statutory inquiry means that witnesses can be compelled to give oral evidence, give witness statements, and provide evidence. This will be a really important power, as in the past non-statutory inquiries have failed due to witnesses refusing to provide evidence”.

Diaz-Rainey Julian

Julian Diaz-Rainey

Partner

The government can increase public confidence in the inquiry process if interested parties are allowed to comment on the terms of reference to ensure their interests are properly considered.

The Inquiries Act 2005 gives the chair a wide range of powers to order the production of statements and evidence, and sanctions for non-compliance include a fine and imprisonment. Johnson said the inquiry would have “the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath”.

The precise scope and terms of the inquiry have still to be finalised. Johnson said the devolved administrations across the UK would be consulted on those matters and that the inquiry would “consider all key aspects of the UK response”. He said the inquiry would “place the state’s actions under the microscope”.

“The state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future,” Johnson said.

The terms of reference set out the scope of the inquiry and the issues it needs to consider.

Diaz-Rainey said: “Drafting the terms of reference is an important task – too broad and the inquiry could become drawn out and costly; too narrow and it may not consider all the relevant issues. The government can increase public confidence in the inquiry process if interested parties are allowed to comment on the terms of reference to ensure their interests are properly considered.”

Kevin Bridges, who specialises in health and safety law at Pinsent Masons, said: “At the moment only one inquiry has been announced, but it will be interesting to see whether further inquiries will follow to cover other areas such as the awarding of contracts for PPE, the higher death rates within certain parts of the population, or whether these issues will all be considered in one inquiry, or not at all.”

Diaz-Rainey said that one of the other important steps necessary in formally establishing the inquiry will be deciding who should be the inquiry chair. He said the chair would be appointed by the government and is often a judge or barrister.

“The chair must have sufficient expertise and experience to instil confidence in the public that they will run the inquiry efficiently and be truly independent from the government,” he said.

Co-written by Chris Dryland of Pinsent Masons.