Published by BBC NEWS - 7th June 2023
  • Published
Visitors to The National Covid Memorial Wall on the third anniversary of the UK's first national lockdownImage source, Reuters

The public inquiry investigating the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will hold its first public hearing on 13 June.

Meanwhile the Cabinet Office has launched a legal challenge against the inquiry’s request to see unredacted messages sent between former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and colleagues.

What is the Covid inquiry?

Public inquiries are designed to respond to “public concern” about a particular event or set of events. Although initiated and funded by government, they are led by an independent chair.

An inquiry has the power to make people appear as witnesses, and to provide documentation and material evidence. It is expected to publish its conclusions and may make recommendations to government.

The Covid inquiry, launched by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in May 2021, is investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic – and will cover decision-making by Westminster and the devolved administrations.

Baroness Heather Hallett who will chair the public inquiry into the Covid pandemic

Image source, PA Media

At the time, Boris Johnson said that all aspects of the UK’s response would be “placed under the microscope”.

The inquiry has no formal deadline but is due to hold public hearings until 2026.

How will the inquiry work?

The inquiry’s work is split into six “modules”, covering different aspects of the government’s response.

The first three are considering:

  • resilience and preparedness
  • core UK decision-making and political governance
  • the impact of Covid on healthcare systems in the four nations of the UK

Staff care for a patient in critical care at Royal Papworth hospital in Cambridge

Image source, Getty Images

The next three – with hearings due to take place in 2024 and 2025 – will look at:

  • the UK care sector
  • vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment across the UK
  • government procurement across the UK

Public hearings will be held in all four nations of the UK.

What are the key issues the inquiry will look at?

Baroness Hallett’s team is expected to focus on the biggest and most controversial aspects of the government’s response, including:

  • the decision to delay lockdown at the very start of the pandemic, which some experts say cost thousands of lives
  • the move to abandon testing in the community in March 2020
  • the approach to care homes – where 40% of Covid deaths occurred in the first three months – including the lack of testing, PPE shortages and the mass discharge of patients from hospital when Covid first hit

The inquiry is also expected to consider whether too many restrictions were imposed as the pandemic progressed.

Over the course of 80 days in autumn 2020, England went from the so-called “rule of six” to a tiered system of regulations, then into a national lockdown and then back to tiers.

The inquiry is also expected to consider the government’s policy towards schools.

These closed to most pupils in March 2020 and then again in January 2021, and only fully reopened the first time after hairdressers and pubs had resumed their operations.

Who will give evidence?

Although a full list of witnesses has not yet been published, senior government ministers and officials are expected to give evidence under oath.

Sir Chris Whitty, the UK government’s chief medical adviser during the pandemic, and Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, are likely to appear.

Members of the public have also been invited to share their experiences through the inquiry’s Every Story Matters project.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group – which has been critical of some aspects of the government’s handling of the pandemic – has urged the inquiry to ensure these voices are heard.

Why does the inquiry want access to ministers’ WhatsApp messages?

The inquiry has asked to see unredacted WhatsApp messages between former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and 40 people during the pandemic period.

These include former No 10 advisor Dominic Cummings, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and former Chancellor and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2022

Image source, PA Media

The Cabinet Office launched a legal challenge against the request, arguing the messages are irrelevant. This is thought to be the first time a government has taken legal action against its own public inquiry.

Baroness Hallett said it was her job to decide if material was relevant.

However Mr Johnson said he was “perfectly content” for the inquiry to have WhatsApp messages sent after May 2021 which have already been given to the Cabinet Office. Earlier messages are not available because his mobile phone was involved in a security breach and has not been used since.

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said he was happy to share his messages, although many of these have already been leaked by the journalist Isobel Oakeshott, who helped Mr Hancock write his book, Pandemic Diaries.

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