The first substantive hearing of the UK COVID-19 Inquiry opened on Tuesday

People hold pictures of loved ones lost during the pandemic outside Dorland House in London where the inquiry is hearing evidence for its first investigation (Module 1) examining if the pandemic was properly planned for and
Bereaved families hold pictures of loved ones lost during the pandemic outside the COVID inquiry.

The “potentially massive impact” of lockdowns on society was not thought through before the pandemic, the lead lawyer for the Covid inquiry has said.

As the probe into the government’s handling of the pandemic began hearing evidence, Hugo Keith KC said the UK may not have been well prepared “at all”.

It was “extraordinary” that lockdowns had received little thought, he added.

Government figures show 227,321 people have died in the UK with Covid mentioned on their death certificate.

Mr Keith told the first public hearing that the virus had caused “death, misery, and incalculable loss”.

He said while Covid could not have been avoided, the key issue was whether its impact on the UK was inevitable.

There was “very little debate” about whether a national lockdown could be needed ahead of the pandemic or whether it could be avoided, Mr Keith told the inquiry, adding that there was a failure to think through the consequences for education and the economy.

On Tuesday, Mr Keith was addressing the inquiry as it prepares to take oral evidence from its first witnesses later this week.

Its first topic – or module – will examine how well prepared the UK was for Covid up to January 2020.

Mr Keith said: “Even at this stage, before hearing the evidence, it is apparent that we might not have been very well prepared at all.”

What is the UK Covid-19 inquiry?

  • It is about going through what happened and learning lessons
  • No-one will be found guilty or innocent
  • Any recommendations made do not have to be adopted by governments
  • The inquiry has no formal deadline but is due to hold public hearings until 2026
  • Scotland is holding a separate inquiry in addition to the wider UK one

Chair Baroness Hallett pledged that the inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic would be the “thorough investigation” that the public deserves.

The former High Court judge paid tribute to a “dignified vigil” of bereaved family members holding a silent protest outside of the building.

Lady Hallett said there were three key questions to be answered for the “millions of people who have suffered and continue to suffer”:

  • Was the UK properly prepared for a pandemic?
  • Was the response to it appropriate?
  • And can we learn lessons for the future?

This first part of the inquiry will hear from key politicians, civil servants, scientists, unions, health and care organisations, groups representing victims and their relatives and more.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group has criticised the inquiry’s timetable and says people have been “excluded from sharing key evidence”.

They branded the inquiry’s Every Story Matters project – where members of the public can share their experience with the inquiry through a website – an “inadequate” process because stories will be anonymised and summarised and possibly “open to bias and interpretation by third parties”.

Addressing critics of the inquiry, Lady Hallett said she hoped they would understand the difficult balance she has had to strike – “I am listening to them, their loss will be recognised, they will be able to contribute to the inquiry.”

Mr Keith, counsel to the inquiry, said UK was “taken by surprise” over “significant aspects” of the pandemic, including lockdowns.

“Extraordinary though it may seem, given that it’s a word that’s forever seared in the nation’s consciousness, there was very little debate pre-pandemic of whether a lockdown might prove to be necessary in the event of a runaway virus, let alone how a lockdown could be avoided.

“Very little thought was given to how, if it proved to be necessary, how something as complex, difficult and damaging as a national lockdown could be put in place at all.

“Equally, there appears to have been a failure to think through the potentially massive impact on education and on the economy.”

He said the UK had been preparing for an outbreak more similar to flu, and questioned how well placed and funded the NHS was to cope.

“No amount of foresight or planning can guarantee that a country will not make mistakes when a disease strikes, but that does not mean that we should not strive to be as ready as we sensibly can be,” Mr Keith said.

“No country can be perfectly prepared, but it can certainly be under-prepared.”

Mr Keith highlighted “shocking” data showing that Covid mortality was two-and-a-half times higher in some of the most deprived parts of the UK than the richest, with people in some ethnic minority groups or with a disability far more likely to be infected or die of the disease.

To what extent those outcomes could and should have been foreseen and mitigated would be a “big question” in module one, he said.

The wider political environment will also be considered including the possible impact of Brexit on emergency planning.

“Did the attention paid to the risks of a no-deal Brexit – Operation Yellowhammer as it was known – drain resources and capacity that should have been continuing the fight against the next pandemic?” Mr Keith asked.

“Or did that generic and operational planning, in fact, lead to people being better trained and well-marshalled, and in fact better prepared to deal with Covid?

“On the evidence so far… we very much fear that it was the former.”

The inquiry will also examine if the collapse of the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland damaged the ability of authorities to plan and respond to the pandemic.

Mr Keith said it was unlikely we will ever know how Covid started – whether it emerged from a lab leak or from farmed wild animals that were sold in Wuhan. Nor when the first human infection happened, he said.

“For this inquiry’s purposes, this knowledge does not matter.”

In his opening remarks, Pete Weatherby KC, counsel for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said the “closest to an overall plan” to deal with Covid in 2020 was a 2011 document drawn up to protect the UK from an outbreak of influenza.

“With a pandemic, time is of the essence and lost time is measured in lives,” he said.

“The families expect the evidence will show… little or no ministerial leadership and the chaos of committees which led to poor planning and ultimately a reactive rather than a proactive response to the virus.”

In response to the Brexit claims, a spokesperson for the prime minister said the government would not be responding to every issue raised in the inquiry.

He added that it would be up to the government to respond at the appropriate stage.

WhatsApp Messages

Lady Hallett has asked to see ex-prime minister Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages between him and around 40 politicians and officials, but this is being challenged by his successor, Rishi Sunak.

The Cabinet Office launched a legal challenge against the request, arguing some of the messages were irrelevant. This is thought to be the first time a government has taken legal action against its own public inquiry.

Mr Johnson said he was “perfectly content” for the inquiry to have WhatsApp messages sent after May 2021. Earlier messages are not available because his mobile phone was involved in a security breach and has not been used since.

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock also said he was happy to share his messages, although many of these have already been leaked by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott, who helped Mr Hancock write his book, Pandemic Diaries.

In a statement about the back-and-forth over the messages, Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson said it “is still ongoing” and will “obviously… be resolved through the normal process”.

“Broadly, we continue to provide tens of thousands of pieces of information to the inquiry, 55,000 documents over the past 11 months and we will do so in the spirit of transparency and candour.”

How many Covid deaths have there been?

The UK saw one of the worst first waves of Covid in Europe in spring 2020.

In April and May that year, about 160,000 deaths were registered: 60,000 more than you’d expect based on the years just before the pandemic.

But by that winter the UK had been overtaken by many countries in eastern Europe who had seemed to escape the first wave.

The UK’s Office for National Statistics has continued to analyse these figures for Europe and, as of July last year, put the UK in the middle of the pack.

According to Department of Health figures, 227,321 people died across the UK with Covid recorded on their death certificate.

Covid vaccines have prevented many deaths and serious illness from the virus – more than 151m doses have been given in the UK.

People hold pictures of loved ones lost during the pandemic outside Dorland House in London where the inquiry is hearing evidence for its first investigation (Module 1) examining if the pandemic was properly planned for and

Bereaved families hold pictures of loved ones in vigil outside COVID inquiry.

Scottish lawyer demands transparency during UK covid inquiry

Aamer Anwar

Lawyer Aamer Anwar is representing families who lost loved ones at the height of lockdown to coronavirus.

By Lucy Ashton

A Scottish lawyer is asking for honesty and clarity from politicians involved in the UK’s response to the pandemic.

The public inquiry into the way the country handled coronavirus in 2020 officially gets underway today and hearings are expected to last until 2026.

Aamer Anwar, who represents families who lost loved ones to the virus, told Clyde 1: “This country was not prepared to cope with coronavirus because of years of under-funding and the impact of Brexit.

“To date, more than 17,000 people have died of covid-19 in Scotland and each death represents not just a single person, but a family affected too.”

The inquiry will be chaired by Baroness Heather Hallet and will take evidence from a number of politicians.

These include key figures involved in decision making before the pandemic such as former Chancellor George Osborn and former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Aamer added: “This inquiry may falter at times over the coming months and years, but it cannot afford to fail or it’ll come under sustained and repeated attacks.

“It must get to the bottom of decisions that were made and uncover the truth.  It is the least these families deserve.”

Covid-19 inquiry: I lost my mum and husband to Covid

Margaret Waterton
Margaret Waterton attended the UK’s Covid Inquiry along with other member of the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group

By BBC Scotland reporter

A woman who lost her mother and husband to coronavirus is among Scots who have travelled to London to attend the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

When the virus first arrived in Scotland, Margaret Waterton’s mother, who was 86, told her: “If I get that I’ll be a goner.”

She died after testing positive in hospital three years ago.

Six months later, both Margaret, 66, and her husband, David, contracted the virus. He died aged 71 in January 2021.

The night her mother died Margaret and her brother sat together in a garden. They were 2m (6.5ft) apart and did not hug one another.

  • What is the UK Covid inquiry and how long will it take?
  • The questions we want the Covid inquiry to answer
  • Bereaved families in London for Covid-19 inquiry

Due to lockdown rules at the time she was only allowed limited numbers at both funerals. She said she felt unable to give either “the send off they deserved”.

“Every day I feel guilty, thinking ‘did I fight hard enough for my husband and my mum?'” she said.

Margaret is a member of the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group, one of several groups from across the UK invited to attend the inquiry’s first investigation.

“The groups have all fought on – Covid affected every citizen,” Margaret said. “Those of use who have been bereaved have paid the heaviest price.”

Aamer Anwar and the bereaved group
The lawyer Aamer Anwar is representing the Scottish Covid Bereaved Group.

The Covid inquiry, launched by former prime minister Boris Johnson in May 2021, is investigating the government’s handling of the pandemic.

It will cover decision-making in Westminster and the devolved administrations.

Across the UK, more than 225,000 people have died with Covid-19 on their death certificate.

Margaret said her mother, also called Margaret, had been asthmatic.

Her mother signed a Do Not Attempt Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) form when she was admitted to Wishaw University Hospital in North Lanarkshire with a bad chest infection.

“Later when I complained about that the health board [NHS Lanarkshire] indicated to me that the way that had been obtained by the doctor was inappropriate,” she told BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland programme.

She said the health board had apologised.

An NHS Lanarkshire spokesperson confirmed that the board apologised at the time for the management of the DNACPR.

“In terms of good practice, any decisions regarding the application of the DNACPR should be discussed with the patient and/or carer by medical staff and this is documented in the patient record,” they said.

The spokesperson emphasised that regardless of DNACPR status, it was in the policy guidelines that patients would receive suitable treatments for their wellbeing and comfort.

Margaret Simpson
Margaret Waterton’s mother,  Margaret Simpson – died in hospital after contracting Covid-19

Margaret is hoping to get answers on how decisions were made during the pandemic at a governmental level and how those decisions were then implemented at local clinical levels.

The session in London opened with a statement from chairwoman Baroness Hallett, followed by a short film featuring people from across the UK sharing their experiences of loss.

The inquiry has no formal deadline but is due to hold public hearings until 2026.

Scottish ministers are expected to participate as it progresses.

A separate Scotland-focused inquiry chaired by Lord Brailsford is due to start later this year.

“We’re very confident in the leadership of both Lady Hallett and Lord Brailsford,” Margaret said.

“Although it’s going to be some time before we have the outcomes from each module, it is a landmark day for us.”

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