Authors:Douglas Johnson
Last updated:2023-09-18
“Public inquiries are needed for far more than just establishing what happened.”
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Inquests
The COVID-19 pandemic was arguably the UK’s biggest civil contingency ever. At the time of writing, the World Health Organization’s count of excess deaths due to the coronavirus was over 6.5m, but it is estimated that the true number could be between 16m and 28m. In the UK, the government response led to the mobilisation of resources not seen outside wartime, with enforced restrictions on movement and massive financial support for business.
The public and government responded urgently – but maybe not urgently enough – to the crisis in early 2020. Many major public decisions were made in a far speedier way than is usual in public law terms, so it is not surprising there was a lot of pressure on the then prime minister to call a public inquiry. Baroness (formerly Lady Justice) Hallett was appointed as inquiry chair on 15 December 2021. After consulting on the draft terms of reference, it was only when the final terms of reference were given on 28 June 2022 that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry was formally established.
The inquiry will now ‘examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic’. In meeting its aims, the inquiry will (among other things):
consider any disparities evident in the pandemic’s impact on different categories of people, including, but not limited to, those relating to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010; and
listen to and consider carefully the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss as a result of the pandemic (although the inquiry will not consider in detail individual cases of harm or death, listening to these accounts will inform its understanding of the impact of the pandemic and the response, and of the lessons to be learned).
It is clear that the inquiry’s role will involve a number of affected people being given a chance to tell their stories and for these to be recorded. This is a really important part of an inquiry but also indicates why they so often take a long time. However, it perhaps reflects the real reason why we want and need public inquiries: it is far more than just establishing the facts of what happened.
A formal public inquiry can only be set up by a government minister under powers in Inquiries Act 2005 s1. By contrast, it is possible to hold non-statutory inquiries, such as one I had experience of setting up in my own city. In this case, it is a formal inquiry into the long-running dispute over the felling of street trees in Sheffield.
The episode arose from the city council’s felling of thousands of mature trees under a private finance initiative contract signed in 2012, despite a wave of public protests. The council and its contractor resorted – unsuccessfully – to the criminal and civil law to try and enforce the fellings. Only after six years did the council call a truce and enter dialogue with campaigners.
This was clearly an emotive, divisive and long-running issue for the city, actively and directly involving thousands of people. As elections took us into a new form of political administration in the city, all parties agreed to the need to hold some sort of inquiry.
The terms of reference of the Sheffield Independent Inquiry into the Street Trees Dispute take a ‘truth and reconciliation’ approach and set the following goals:
to support the ongoing recovery in Sheffield from the dispute; and
to draw conclusions and make recommendations designed to help minimise the risk of the dispute re-emerging in future.
In particular, the terms of reference state that the inquiry will look at ‘why stakeholders on all sides acted in the way they did’. Ultimately, this is what is important: those involved need to be able to give their account of what happened, but they also need to be able to listen and understand other people’s stories.