Is justice really possible from the Covid Inquiries?

WILL THERE be any real justice from the public inquiries into Covid-19 and the government responses? It is becoming increasingly difficult get a positive answer to this question as the state of the public inquiries reveals huge disparities in their approach and levels of competence.

We have written about the UK-based inquiry here before, explaining to readers that it looks set to focus firstly on if we had lockdowns early enough, if they lasted long enough and if we should have had more – rather than if they actually worked and were needed at all

The order in which the UK inquiry is being conducted goes against its own terms of reference and it will not be well into next year that some of the issues that Recovery has been lobbying for – such as the effect of pandemic restrictions on children – might begin to be addressed. 

The UK inquiry has closed its applications for oral evidence for Module 1 (resilience and preparedness) and its first deliberation about procedural matters took place this week. The inquiry has made available a video of those proceedings via YouTube – the link is here. The first evidence session of Module 1 will take place during the Spring of next year. The invitations for oral evidence in Module 2 (political and administrative decision-making of UK and devolved governments) have also now opened. By the time it reports the general election is likely to have been held.

The UK Covid Inquiry may be ploddingly slow (maybe because it is being diligent and serious in its processes) but at least it is happening. The same cannot be said for the Public Inquiry in Scotland – which collapsed into confusion last week – or the fact that there are no separate Inquiries in Wales or Northern Ireland.

The Scottish Public Inquiry is meant to look at the Scottish Government’s actions throughout the pandemic, including lockdown measures, care home infections and the vaccine programme, but conspiracy theories were let loose as Lady Poole (pictured above), the judge chairing the inquiry, resigned – ostensibly for personal reasons. Fair enough, was the initial reaction, but it was subsequently found four members of the Inquiry’s legal team had also resigned first. The fact the SNP-Green Scottish Government failed to mention any knowledge of the legal team’s departure when issuing the original statement about Lady Poole’s resignation quickly had tongues wagging of an attempted cover-up of possible Scottish Government pressure causing the lead counsel Douglas Ross KC and three of his staff to withdraw.

The Scottish Government has form in exerting pressure – having the release of statistics about Covid care home deaths delayed for three-and-a-half months until after the 2021 Holyrood Parliament elections.

Professor Peter Watson, a leading solicitor-Advocate with considerable experience of public Inquiries – and who is representing some Covid-affected families in the Scottish Inquiry – has commented, “It is extraordinary, to say the least, for people such as counsel to the inquiry and others to resign their post and leave. Most lawyers would find ways to work round any perceived difficulties, but for lawyers to say they will no longer accept instructions – quite extraordinary.” Jane Morrison, one of the campaigners looking for answers and justice from the Scottish Inquiry told the BBC, “At this rate, the UK Inquiry will be looking at Scottish issues before the Scottish Inquiry.”

In Wales and Northern Ireland there are, as yet, no agreements to have local Public Inquiries – which suits the politicians who took their own decisions – often at variance with what was coming out of the Whitehall-based ministries. Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, in particular gained a reputation for applying greater and longer restrictions than in England. 

Speaking in the Senedd last week, Drakeford said there was no need for a specific Welsh Covid Inquirybecause the world had “moved on”. Mr Drakeford told the Conservative opposition leader, Andrew RT Davies, “there will be no inquiry of that sort here in Wales”.

In Northern Ireland the Alliance Health spokesperson, Paula Bradshaw, called for a Northern Ireland-specific public inquiry into the care home response during the Covid-19 pandemic – but with Stormont not sitting due to the political dispute around the NI Protocol there is no mechanism to agree decisions that change the administrative status quo and so the focus will remain in sessions about Northern Ireland held by the UK Inquiry.

One has to ask if justice for those directly impacted by the decisions around the Government responses to the Covid pandemic is really possible over such an expanding time frame? Or if lessons will be learned in time to prevent them being repeated – sadly the slow progress, resignations in Scotland and absence of inquiries in Wales and Northern Ireland give no encouragement to believe they will deliver to the satisfaction of the public. The fear must be that the Covid inquiries collapse under their own weight of contradictions and unmet expectations.

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Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and managing editor of the Recovery blog.