Published by BBC NEWS - 31st January 2024
  • Published
Volunteers paint red hearts on the National Covid Memorial Wall in London in April 2021Image source, Getty Images

Former Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been questioned about her handling of the pandemic by the Covid inquiry.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his predecessor Boris Johnson have already robustly defended their response.

Their evidence was part of the second round of public hearings, which focused on the government’s handling of the crisis.

What is a public inquiry?

Public inquiries respond to “public concern” about events. Established and funded by government, they are led by an independent chair.

Inquiries can demand evidence and compel witnesses to attend.

No-one is found guilty or innocent, but conclusions are published. The government is not obliged to accept any recommendations.

At the time, he said the government’s response would be “under the microscope”.

Chart showing Covid deaths (June 2023)

Who is leading the Covid inquiry and how does it work?

The Covid inquiry began on 28 June 2022.

It is chaired by former judge and crossbench peer Baroness Hallett, who previously led the inquests into the 7 July London bombings.

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

Image source, Piranha Photography

The inquiry is split into different parts. Work in four areas has begun:

  • resilience and preparedness
  • core UK decision-making and political governance
  • the impact of Covid on healthcare systems
  • vaccines, therapeutics and antiviral treatment

Future strands will consider:

  • the care sector
  • government procurement and PPE
  • test-and-trace
  • the government’s businesses and financial responses
  • health inequalities
  • education, children and young people
  • other public services

There is no specific timescale for how long the inquiry will last but Lady Hallett does not expect the public hearings to run beyond summer 2026.

The UK inquiry is holding public hearings on the question of government decision-making in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in January, February and April 2024, respectively.

Scotland is also holding a separate inquiry, which will take evidence from many of the same experts and politicians.

Who has given evidence during the hearings in Scotland?

The inquiry has been looking at informal communications between Scottish government advisers and ministers.

First Minister Humza Yousaf apologised unreservedly for the Scottish government’s failure to hand over relevant WhatsApp messages.

Nicola Sturgeon

Image source, Covid Inquiry

Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted that she deleted messages from the period.

But she insisted that she did not use these informal channels to reach decisions or to have substantial discussions, and that everything of relevance was available on the public record.

Ms Sturgeon was emotional during some of her evidence, and appeared to fight back tears as she told the inquiry that “part of me wishes I hadn’t been [First Minister during the pandemic]”.

What did PM Rishi Sunak say to the inquiry?

The prime minister apologised to “all those who suffered… as a result of the actions that were taken”, but denied his Eat Out to Help Out Scheme had increased Covid infections and deaths.

Rishi Sunak in Wagamama during Eat Out To Help Out

Image source, HM Treasury

He also rejected earlier evidence from the government’s chief medical officer, Prof Sir Chris Whitty, and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance that they were not consulted about the policy.

What did Boris Johnson say to the inquiry?

The former prime minister gave evidence across two days.

The inquiry had already heard from government officials and advisers, academic experts and representatives of bereaved families, many of whom were extremely critical of Mr Johnson.

His comments were interrupted by protesters, who were ordered to leave the room. Some members of bereaved families held up signs reading: “The dead can’t hear your apologies.”

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Mr Johnson admitted mistakes were made, and that “there were unquestionably things we should have done differently”. He said he took “personal responsibility for all decisions made”, but insisted that ministers had done their “level best” in difficult circumstances.

Who else gave evidence during the second round of hearings?

The inquiry heard from Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock – who previously told the inquiry the UK’s pandemic strategy had been completely wrong – denied he lied to colleagues during his period in office.

Cabinet minister Michael Gove also apologised to “victims and families who endured so much loss”, but denied Mr Johnson could not take decisions.

Sir Chris, his former deputy Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam and Sir Patrick revealed significant tensions between their advice to government and its political priorities, such as over Eat Out to Help Out.

Boris Johnson, Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance

Image source, PA Media

Dominic Cummings

Image source, EPA

The inquiry heard scathing text messages which he sent, many of which contained offensive descriptions of ministers and officials.

He said he regretted the disastrous handling of his infamous trip to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown, but denied his actions had damaged public trust.

Who gave evidence during the first public hearings?

The first public hearings, linked to the UK’s resilience and preparedness, took evidence from 69 independent experts and former and current government officials and ministers.

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These included former health secretaries Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock, former prime minister David Cameron and former first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon.

Sir Chris, his predecessor Prof Dame Sally Davies, and Sir Patrick also gave evidence during the first hearings.

When will the inquiry publish conclusions?

A report based on the second round of hearings is also due in 2024.

Public hearings for the third area of examination – the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems across the UK – are expected to run for 10 weeks from autumn 2024.

Witness hearings will be postponed, probably until after the next general election.

Organisations needed more time to prepare for a separate investigation into the impact of Covid on the NHS, Lady Hallett said.

How can the public get involved?

Anyone can share their experience through the inquiry’s Every Story Matters project.

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

Public hearings are streamed on the BBC News website and the inquiry’s YouTube channel, and witness transcripts are published on the inquiry website.

Members of the public can also apply to attend in person.

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