The UK Government announced yesterday (15 December 2021) that the Rt Hon Baroness Heather Hallett DBE will be Chair of the upcoming public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic. Baroness Hallett is a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, and sat on the Court of Appeal between 2005 and 2019. She has previously conducted other high profile public inquests, inquiries and reviews, including those relating to the 2005 London bombings, and she chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations. In the New Year, the panellists to sit alongside Baroness Hallett are due to be appointed.
Powers of the inquiry
The Government also confirmed that the inquiry will be established under the Inquiries Act 2005 with full powers. This means that the Chair of the inquiry will be able to require the provision of evidence and the production of documents (failure to comply can be an offence).
Terms of reference
Draft terms of reference for the inquiry are expected to be published in the New Year. There will then be an opportunity to comment on the draft terms of reference (as part of a process of consultation / public engagement, including with those who have lost loved ones and other affected groups).
If you are considering responding to the consultation, it would be worth starting to give some thought now to what you would like the inquiry to cover and asking for input from your legal team. We are happy to discuss this.
We anticipate that the remit of the terms of reference will be wide-ranging, and cover details of the Government’s response to the pandemic, including its interactions with (and award of contracts to) the private sector. We will be publishing further on the impact of the inquiry for our clients as its scope takes shape.
The inquiry is set to commence work in spring 2022. We anticipate that this date will mark the formal constitution of the inquiry with other substantive steps, such as evidential hearings, to follow later.
In parallel, Lady Poole QC has been appointed as chair of the Scottish Covid-19 public inquiry and the terms of reference for that inquiry have now been published (including broad issues such as the supply, distribution and use of PPE). The terms of reference are subject to a “period of reflection” which may involve adjustments to take account of the remit of the UK wide Covid-19 inquiry.