On 12 May 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that an independent public inquiry into the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic would take place on a statutory basis under the Inquiries Act 2005. This means that the Inquiry will have a number of powers, including the ability to compel the production of statements and evidence and to take oral evidence in public under oath. The Prime Minister has stated that the Inquiry will commence in Spring 2022.
What is a public inquiry and what is its purpose?
A Minister may launch a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 where there appears to have been particular events that have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern, or there is public concern that particular events may have occurred. Their purpose, generally, is to establish what happened; why it happened; and what can be done to prevent recurrence of those events. Whilst an Inquiry is not to rule on, and has no power to determine, any person’s civil or criminal liability, it should not be inhibited in the discharge of its functions by any likelihood of liability being inferred from facts that it determines or recommendations that it makes.
What will be the focus of the Covid-19 inquiry?
At present, the aims and remit of the Inquiry (known as the terms of reference) have not yet been defined. As such, the areas that the Inquiry will investigate are unknown. The potential scope of the Inquiry is vast. Potential aspects of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic that could be explored include:
- Planning and Preparation: The extent to which the UK was prepared for a global pandemic.
- Control Measures: The nature, timing, extent and efficacy of the imposition of control measures including: lockdowns, the test and trace scheme, social distancing measures, the use of face coverings, and the ‘traffic light’ scheme for international travel.
- Care Homes: The supply of PPE for care home workers, procedures for preventing the spread of Covid-19 within care homes, isolation procedures, testing, and risk assessments.
- Black and minority ethnic communities: The reason for the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on BAME people within the UK.
- PPE: The provision of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.
- Healthcare within the pandemic: The treatment of Covid-19 patients, risk assessments, procedures for preventing the spread of Covid-19 within healthcare settings, and the impact of Covid-19 on the provision of non-Covid-19 related treatment.
- Procurement: The Government’s procurement of contracts relating to the pandemic. This issue has already been the subject of a number of legal challenges (see, for example: R (Good Law Project & Others) v Secretary of State for Health and Social Care  EWHC 346).
- Vaccines: The procurement of vaccines, the prioritisation of vaccine groups and the decision to delay the second dose of the vaccines.
The above list is by no means exhaustive. It demonstrates the hugely wide-ranging issues that the Inquiry could potentially investigate.
How long is the inquiry likely to last?
The length of the Inquiry will depend on the breadth of the terms of reference. The average public inquiry takes two and a half years to publish its final report, however, since 1990, nine inquiries have taken five or more years to produce their final reports. Some inquiries have lasted a very significant length of time indeed (see for example, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry which lasted 12 years). Even if the terms of reference of the Covid-19 inquiry are defined in a (relatively) narrow way, the Inquiry is inevitably likely to involve virtually every government department, as well as the private sector, and the events concerned have impacted the lives of every single person living in the UK in one way or another. For those reasons, the Covid-19 Inquiry may well be unprecedented in its scale.
In my view, it will be very important for the Inquiry’s terms of reference to be carefully defined. If defined too narrowly, the Inquiry risks losing public confidence for failing to explore key questions. Conversely, if defined too widely, the Inquiry risks becoming unwieldly, lengthy, and ultimately costly. The right balance will need to be struck to enable the Inquiry to properly investigate the pressing questions at the forefront of the public’s minds, and to ultimately go on to make important and insightful recommendations for the future.
Harriet Wakeman is a barrister at Temple Garden Chambers. She specialises in public inquiries, inquests, and public law. She is currently instructed in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, the Brook House Inquiry and in the Bugaled Breizh inquests. She is an editor of the Temple Garden Chambers’ biannual Inquests and Inquiries newsletter.
 Section 1(1), Inquiries Act 2005
 Section 2, Inquiries Act 2005
 Institute for Government: How public inquiries can lead to change (December 2017)