Today is the first preliminary hearing in the Covid 19 inquiry and we have learned a lot about the vision, the scope and procedure. This potentially huge, complex and important Inquiry was movingly opened today by Baroness Hallett followed by counsel for the inquiry, Hugo Keith KC who set out information on some of the structure and legalities.
So what have we learned so far?
First, as we thought, the timetable will be ambitious. Those in receipt of rule 9 requests for evidence will not get much time to respond. It promises that it will not drag on for decades, producing reports when it’s too late to do any good. Baroness Hallett made it quite clear that she will not be saying yes to all applications for Core Participant status and what was sought was “insightful and sensible input” from Core Participants. The critical balance will be between the Inquiry’s ability to make timely recommendations from lessons learned and its ability to cover everything that is important. No decisions will be taken lightly, she said. Whilst not a blame exercise, we were told that the Inquiry would identify plainly wrong decisions, culpable and discreditable conduct.
She did emphasise though that even if not a Core Participant, there would be many ways in which information could be given to the Inquiry or suggesting lines of Inquiry to its legal terms.
Interestingly, we heard that individuals are unlikely to have their pen portraits of suffering, treatment or death invited as evidence directly to the Inquiry. The route for input from individuals or their experience will be via the Listening Exercise, intended to be an informal and less intimidating environment than giving evidence at a hearing. The information from the Listening Exercise is likely to receive 10s or 100s of thousands of sets of testimony. This will be summarised for the Inquiry and will form a critically important part of its learning.
So far 28 Core Participants have been accepted, most of which for module 1 are the representatives of the bereaved, Government Departments or National bodies including the Local Government Association and public health bodies.
The course of the Inquiry in relation to Scope of Module 1, and by analogy to the other modules, is not currently set. Much will depend of course on the evidence that is forthcoming in response to the rule 9 letters, which could lead to requests for more information and evidence and indeed lead to further avenues of investigation. The issues of real importance will develop through the course of the process.
For this reason in part, the Counsel to the Inquiry was clear that position statements from organisations should not be sought. It would be to jump the gun as entities need to assemble information and evidence, see other evidence disclosed by the Inquiry and could not hope to have a settled position at the outset.
With regard to disclosure, the plan is to provide the same disclosure to all Core Participants, which whilst a subset of everything received, will not be limited to that which is relevant to the particular entity. As such, Core Participants can expect to receive a very large amount of information to read through and analyse. As a concomitant however, the Inquiry will expect those providing evidence to say how they preserved their information, its storage, the search terms used and nature of any review carried out. Where the Inquiry has concerns, these will be raised and pursued. There will be some disclosure before Christmas.
Otherwise in terms of timing, there is likely to be another preliminary hearing for module 1 in early 2023 and possibly a third one after that. The public hearing for this module is likely to be in May 2023 and to run for four weeks.