The chairman of the Covid inquiry has rejected claims that bereaved families have been “barred” from giving evidence as she vowed they will be “at the heart” of proceedings.
Baroness Hallett was responding to reports that families have been banned from submitting individual testimonies and “marginalised” from the official public inquiry.
Families will instead be encouraged to submit pen portraits to a “Listening Exercise”, intended to be a less formal setting which will allow everyone who wishes to do so to contribute.
But representatives for the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice (CBFJ) said they were “sceptical” of Lady Hallett’s assurances.
In her opening statement, Lady Hallett said: “I have taken no decisions as yet on the witnesses to be called so no one has been barred from giving evidence.”
Pete Weatherby KC, representing CBFJ, told the preliminary hearing in London on Tuesday that the proposed exercise “outsources” the examination of the families’ loss and “marginalises” their voices.
“The Listening Exercise… outsources examination of the experiences and the evidence of the bereaved and of their loss, and it places them in a parallel ad hoc process outside of the statutory inquiry framework,” he said. “And it does, with respect, marginalise the bereaved and their voices.”
Today, in her opening statement, Baroness Heather Hallett, sets out some of her intentions for the Inquiry: pic.twitter.com/vka4q6URW5
— UK Covid-19 Inquiry (@covidinquiryuk) October 4, 2022
Lady Hallett hit back at the claim and said she wanted to “put the record straight”.
She said: “I know how distressed people already traumatised by grief can be if they see something, perhaps misunderstood, in reports.
“There is absolutely no question that the bereaved will be marginalised and I really don’t ever want to hear that expression again.”
She added that she is “determined that those who have suffered will be at the heart of this inquiry”.
PR firms which received government contracts to run Covid-19 public health campaigns are reportedly bidding to lead the Listening Exercise, according to reports.
Responding to Lady Hallett's comments following the inquiry, Matt Fowler, co-founder of the CBFJ, said: “I am sceptical about Baroness Hallett’s claims that we are not being ‘marginalised’. Her proposals for the listening exercise do exactly that.
"It’s been alarming to learn that our experiences will be collated by a third party, and worse that those third parties may include PR companies that were part of the Government’s pandemic response. This clearly risks a conflict of interest, and it’s hard to see how we can have confidence that our experiences will be listened to accurately and fairly."
A spokesman for the Covid inquiry said: “The inquiry has robust processes in place to deal with any conflicts of interest.”
Lady Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge, opened the inquiry by saying she planned to investigate the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, the Government’s response, and its impact on patients, NHS and social care staff and the public.
The inquiry is so wide-ranging that it has been split into modules, with only the first three announced so far.
Module 1, the subject of Tuesday’s preliminary hearing, will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic. Public hearings for the module will begin in May 2023 and are expected to last four weeks.
Module 2 will examine decisions taken by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees. Preliminary hearings for this module are not expected to begin until November 2023.
Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.
Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry lead counsel, who represented the late Queen in the inquest into the death of Princess Diana, set out the scope for the first module of the inquiry, the list of core participants and addressed reports around the Listening Exercise.
Some 28 core participants have been selected for Module 1 including, the British Medical Association, the TUC, the CBFJ, the Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Cabinet Office.
‘Soulless non-humanised process of legal hearings’
Mr Keith said the “core function” of the inquiry is not “to enquire into the direct circumstances of the tragic deaths that occurred”, but is instead to examine the pandemic that led to those deaths.
He added hearing oral evidence about individual deaths would be “impractical”.
“Given the threat to the inquiry’s remit and the need to make timely recommendations about the pandemic, the receipt of oral evidence in public hearings about individual’s losses or the circumstances of individual deaths is impractical,” he said.
He added it would also require difficult decision-making as “amongst the hundreds of thousands of deaths, who should be called upon to give evidence?”
Pen portrait evidence, relating to the lives of the persons who have died, who bring value to an inquest, he said. “But this too is impractical,” he added.
In a press conference following the hearing Fran Hall, of the CBFJ, said the families are being told they will be central to the proceedings, “but then at the same time, we’re being told that our stories, our individual pain, is not going to be integrated into the inquiry”.
She called for a bereaved person to tell their story at the start of every hearing to “set the tone for what is otherwise quite a soulless non-humanised process of legal hearings”.