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UK government faces legal action as public inquiry into COVID-19 handling begins

  • The UK is holding a public inquiry into the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government is already seeking legal action prior to the commencement of evidence hearings.
  • The inquiry was initiated by the government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021 to identify any mistakes made.
  • The government has faced significant criticism for its initial delay in implementing lockdown measures compared to other European countries, as well as its subsequent management of restrictions during multiple waves of the pandemic.

Britain is holding a public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government is already seeking legal action against it even before it has started hearing evidence.

Here are the key facts about the inquiry.

Why is there an inquiry?

The inquiry was ordered by the government when Boris Johnson was prime minister in 2021, to look at how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled in Britain, and what mistakes were made.

The government’s handling of the pandemic has been heavily criticised for its initial slowness – compared to others in Europe – in introducing lockdown, and its subsequent handling of restrictions through several waves of the pandemic.

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Britain recorded one of the world’s highest total number of deaths from COVID, with more than 175,000 COVID deaths reported by the time Johnson stood down in July last year.

However, the government also highlighted a rapid rollout of vaccines which helped the country emerge from lockdown for good in early 2022.

What is the inquiry looking at?

Under its terms of reference the inquiry will “examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.”

The British government only sets health policy for England, with devolved administrations setting policies in the UK’s other nations.

Four modules have been announced so far, on the topics of resilience and preparedness; core UK decision-making and political governance; impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the health systems of the UK’s nations; and vaccines and therapeutics.

When did the inquiry start and when will it end?

The inquiry was formally set up in June 2022. It has been holding preliminary hearings, which are to discuss how the hearings will run rather than to discuss evidence.

The inquiry will start to hear evidence for the first module, on resilience and preparedness, on June 13. The hearings will last for six weeks.

While a preliminary hearing on Tuesday is to discuss Module 2, which covers UK decision making and political governance and will cover how Johnson handled the pandemic, evidential hearings in this module aren’t due to start until October 2023.

The inquiry is expected to last for years, with no specific indication given of when it will end by.

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What is the legal dispute over the inquiry?

The government last week said it is seeking a legal challenge against the inquiry, the culmination of a dispute over what messages the inquiry has access to.

The inquiry had asked for WhatsApp messages and other documents for its examination of government decision-making during the pandemic.

But the government said that some of the messages and other records the inquiry had requested were unambiguously irrelevant.

It is seeking a judicial review – a legal challenge to the lawfulness of a decision by a public body – against the inquiry.

COVID-19 lockdown

 A man wearing a face mask walks past The National Covid Memorial Wall, on national day of reflection to mark the two year anniversary of the United Kingdom going into national lockdown, in London, Britain, on March 23, 2022. (REUTERS/Peter Cziborra)

The government has said it will co-operate with the inquiry as the courts determine whether it has the jurisdictional power to demand the messages.

On Tuesday, the lead counsel to the inquiry said the judicial review would likely be held on June 30 or shortly thereafter.

What aims does the inquiry have?

Under its terms of reference, the inquiry aims:

– to provide a factual account of the COVID-19 response

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– identify lessons to be learned

– inform preparations for future pandemics

It does not have the power to bring criminal or civil charges against individuals or bodies, and cannot compel the government to take on its recommendations.

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