Families who lost loved ones during the pandemic have demanded to play a central role in the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry, which launches its investigative phase tomorrow.
The inquiry has already consulted with different groups, businesses, academics and officials from a variety of sectors involved in the pandemic response to review which areas warrant scrutiny and how to structure proceedings.
This includes Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, a campaign group of over 6,000 people who have lost a loved one to coronavirus.
The group has repeatedly sought assurances from the inquiry it will be granted a ‘core participant’ status once applications open. This which would allow families to give evidence, ask questions during proceedings, access all disclosed documents, and recommend people to be interviewed.
However, Elkan Abrahamson, a lawyer who is representing the group in the inquiry, said it was unclear how the inquiry would select core participants and expressed concern that the bereaved families won’t play a central role.
“The feeling from the bereaved at the consultation stage was that the chair was sympathetic. They were happy with how that went,” Mr Abrahamson said.
“[But] given we represent the largest group of bereaved in the UK, we’re not experiencing a sense of co-operation that we would normally expect to have reached by this stage. Their lawyers are happy to meet with us, but the questions we ask them aren’t being properly answered.”
Mr Abrahamson said he also was seeking further clarity on the purpose of the ‘listening exercise’ — a feature of the inquiry, away from the main investigations and legal proceedings, which will allow people to share their personal experiences of the pandemic away from the spotlight.
Officials are still determining how the listening exercise will function alongside the main inquiry and what shape it will take, but more information is expected to be provided in the coming days and weeks.
“We understand that they can’t listen to 200,000 affected families, but we expect them to listen to an appropriate cross sample,” said Mr Abrahamson. “Evidence about those people who died needs to be heard by the inquiry.”
He added: “We’d like it to be more co-operative with all the participants, we’d like an early hearing when core participants when they have been fixed, and we’d like to understand the purpose of and processes behind the listening exercise.”
A number of organisations and groups have said they will ask to be a core participant in the inquiry, including Disability Rights UK, Long Covid SOS and the Royal College of Nurses (RCN). The application process is expected to open imminently.
Ondine Sherwood, a spokesperson for Long Covid SOS, said the group’s engagement with the inquiry so far had been “positive” but added that “it’s our concern we won’t play a big part”.
She added: “We want to make sure long Covid has the emphasis it deserves. The government will be represented by lawyers and will have money to throw at their defence.
“We’re a small group, we don’t have the money or resources, and we’re worried we’ll be outgunned by their legal team. We need to have the right to challenge the government.”
The RCN, which also said it was satisfied with the inquiry’s approach so far, has raised 34 points to the chair that it believes should be addressed during proceedings.
These include preparedness for the pandemic, the management of Covid-19 in different care settings and failures in workforce planning.
Pat Cullen, general secretary and chief executive of the RCN, said: “The Covid-19 inquiry must not just be about what they failed to do in the years before the pandemic, those early days or even the big moments of the last two years. It must look ahead.”
In her opening statement tomorrow, Baroness Heather Hallett, the chair of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, will share more information about the investigative phase of the inquiry and how she intends to run it.
Details on the core participant application process will also be provided, along with information on how members of the public can share their experiences with the inquiry.
A Covid inquiry spokesperson said: “The inquiry has consulted extensively with bereaved families, and those who experienced hardship during the pandemic, to ensure it investigates the issues that impacted people most.
“We will continue to make sure that those who were most impacted by the pandemic have a voice within the inquiry.”