There have been nearly 10,000 dead involving Covid-19 in Wales since March 2020. The pandemic and the response to it has also impacted almost every aspect of our daily lives, from health and education to professional and personal freedoms.
The UK government is setting up an independent public inquiry to examine the response to Covid-19 and the impact of the pandemic, including in Wales. The survey is now consultation on the draft terms of reference.
There have been high-profile calls for a separate inquiry into the decentralized pandemic response in Wales. This article looks at what the UK Inquiry plans to do and how it could approach its work to examine the pandemic response in Wales.
Public inquiries are independent inquiries set up by government ministers. They can be set up following major accidents, disasters or public failures to examine what happened and why, what went wrong and what can be learned.
Public inquiries can be statutory Where non-statutory. the Inquiries Act 2005 forms the legal basis for legal investigations. This allows such investigations compel witnesses to appear in public hearings and to provide documentary evidence.
The law allows ministers in the UK and devolved governments to set up statutory inquiries. Two or more governments can also hold a joint investigation. the The Welsh Government has commissioned a statutory inquiry to date, in the outbreak of E. coli in 2005.
By law, Welsh Ministers can only open inquiries into matters for which they have office (“Welsh Matters”). Welsh Inquiries can only compel witnesses to give evidence or produce documents relating to Welsh matters, or for the purpose of investigating such matters. They cannot demand evidence or documents from the UK government.
Where a British minister wishes the terms of reference for an inquiry to cover Welsh matters, that minister must first consult the Welsh ministers.
Ministers establish the chair and terms of reference for an inquiry. When an investigation has been set up, the President carries it out independently. Once an investigation has collected and examined evidence, it reports with findings and recommendations. Ministers will generally respond to recommendations, but there is no formal process for following up on recommendations. the The Institute for Government argued that this should become an essential task for parliamentary committees.
The UK Covid-19 investigation
The British government has ordered a judicial inquiry in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In December he announced former Court of Appeal judge Baroness Heather Hallett as a chair.
the president consult now to draft terms of reference for the investigation. The draft terms of reference set out what the inquiry should examine and how it should conduct its work. the president also said that she will travel to the UK to seek views on the draft terms of reference, including from bereaved families.
Once the President has reviewed the responses to the consultation, she may recommend changes to the Prime Minister’s draft mandate.
the the investigation should begin to gather evidence this year and begin holding public hearings in 2023.
The draft mandate
The draft terms of reference specify that the inquiry will aim to examine the Covid-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and produce a factual narrative, including:
- a wide range of aspects of central, decentralized and local decision-making in public health and its consequences;
- the health and care sector response across the UK; and
- the economic response to the pandemic and its impact.
They say the survey will aim to identify lessons learned, to inform the UK’s preparations for future pandemics.
The consultation asks whether the draft terms of reference cover all the areas that the inquiry should address. For example, attorney Adam Wagner once said a notable omission from the inquiry’s mandate is the impact of pandemic decision-making on human rights.
The draft terms of reference also specify how the inquiry will be organized to achieve its objectives. As part of this, they say the survey will listen to the experiences of bereaved families and people who have suffered hardship or loss as a result of the pandemic. The consultation asks for opinions on how the survey should be designed and conducted to ensure that these voices are heard.
The draft terms of reference state that the inquiry will produce reports (including interim reports) and recommendations in a timely manner. Complex requests can take a long time. For example, the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published seven years after it began to hear evidence. The consultation seeks opinions on what the Inquiry should examine first and whether the Inquiry should set an expected end date for the hearings.
Wales response review
In Wales, responsibility to respond to the pandemic was shared between the Welsh Government and the British Government. For many, diverging approaches to the pandemic across UK countries have put the skills devolved in the spotlight for the first time.
The draft terms of reference state that the UK inquiry will examine reserved and devolved matters across the UK. In doing so, it will try to minimize duplication with any investigations put in place by devolved governments.
There have been long-standing calls for a separate inquiry into the devolved pandemic response in Wales, including from welsh curators, Blanket Cymru, the Commissioner for the Elderly, and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Group (Cymru). Supporters argued a Welsh inquiry could be more effective hold Welsh ministers accountable for their decisions, ensure understanding of decision-making in the decentralized contextand To be accessible for people across Wales.
the The prime minister said that “a UK-wide Covid inquiry is the best option” to examine the decisions made in Wales, as the decision-making of the Welsh Government “has been inextricably linked to the consideration of the scientific landscape and British politics at large”. the Senedd narrowly voted against a motion calling on the Welsh Government to commission an inquiry in December.
In September, the The Prime Minister has written to the British government to set out his view that Wales should not be “an afterthought or footnote” to the UK investigation, saying that:
- the investigation team should come to Wales to collect evidence;
- the survey should have Welsh-specific expertise; and
- there should be a chapter or chapters on Wales in the inquiry report.
In March, the The Prime Minister confirmed that he had been consulted on the draft terms of reference before publication, and that he also intended to respond formally to the consultation “to ensure that the experiences of the people of Wales are properly heard”.
The Scottish Government has commissioned a separate statutory inquiry into the devolved pandemic response, chaired by Senior Justice Lady (Anna) Poole. the Scottish Government consulted turned on and set the Terms of reference for this survey in 2021. The survey was officially set up in February and is should start work this summer.
You can respond to the consultation on the terms of reference for the UK Covid-19 inquiry until April 7.
Article by Lucy Valsamidis, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament