On 28 June 2022, after a period of consultation, the Inquiry, to be chaired by a former Court of Appeal Judge, Baroness Hallett published its final Terms of Reference (TORs). 

The TORs allow the Inquiry to investigate all aspects of the UK's response to the pandemic and its impact.

The specific topics to be addressed run to 37 in number falling into three categories:

  1. The public health response across the whole of the UK.
  2. The response of the health and care sector across the UK.
  3. The economic response to the pandemic and its impact including Governmental interventions.

The stated aim of the Inquiry is two-fold:

  1. To examine the COVID-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and produce a factual narrative account; and
  2. To identify the lessons to be learned from the above, to inform preparations for future pandemics across the UK. 

The Inquiry's investigation into the numerous topics will look at all possible impacts of the pandemic on Government, the public and the economy. The Inquiry will descend into detail on issues as wide ranging as the use of legislation and regulations as a means of control and enforcement during the pandemic through to the way in which public funds were safeguarded and financial risk managed. There is no part of UK life which will not be subject to some form of scrutiny as to how it was impacted during the pandemic. 

What should you be doing now?

So wide is the scope of the Inquiry that there are very few organisations participating in public life that are likely to be unaffected. Everyone (including individuals playing an important role in the response to COVID-19) should take a little time to consider the precise nature of the TORs on the Inquiry's website.

Those organisations whose activities are likely to be at the core of the Inquiry, particularly those involved in healthcare, the provision of PPE, education, hospitality, retail, travel and sport and leisure should consider what documentation they hold and the extent to which it may assist or be of interest to the Inquiry. Systems should be put in place to ensure that all potentially relevant material is retained; the Inquiry has widespread powers under the Inquiry Act 2005 and the Inquiry Rules 2006 to call for such documentation as well witness evidence. 

Consideration should be given at an early stage to seeking Core Participant (CP) status. Such status brings with it a number of advantages including:

  • The right to disclosure of evidence in advance of it being given
  • The right to attend hearings
  • The right to make opening and closing submissions
  • The right to put questions to witnesses, usually through Counsel to the Inquiry. 

Even those organisations who may not be sufficiently close to the matters under scrutiny to obtain CP status might still want to interact with the Inquiry. Charities may well fall within that category; the Inquiry may be a platform to highlight concerns not only as to the immediate impact of the Inquiry but also its longer-lasting legacy. In an open letter dated 11 March 2022 Baroness Hallett signalled her intention to invite experiences of the pandemic to be shared with the Inquiry. 

Although public hearings are unlikely to commence until 2023, such is the breadth of the Inquiry that those who may be affected by it should start making preparations now. 

How can Womble Bond Dickinson help?

We have advised clients in Public Inquiries for many years. Our experience includes representing Core Participants but also in assisting individuals and organisations responding to requests for evidence and documentation made by Inquiries. 

A reflection of our expertise is that we currently have prominent roles in the ongoing Grenfell Tower Inquiry and Scottish Hospitals Inquiry. 

This article is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice.