Inside the Covid-19 inquiry: seven years long, 150 lawyers hired and £114m spent so far
The Government is planning for the Covid-19 inquiry to last up to seven years as more than 150 lawyers have already been hired, The Telegraph can reveal.
The bill for the inquiry has hit almost £114 million before the first hearings have even begun, leaving it on course to be the most expensive investigation of its kind in history.
On Friday, MPs raised concerns that it was becoming “very expensive and very bloated”, and that ministers could be using the hearing to “kick things into [the] very long grass”.
It came amid renewed scrutiny of the Government’s decisions on Covid after The Telegraph revealed it had obtained more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages between Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials at the height of the pandemic.
In the wake of The Lockdown Files, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, demanded that the inquiry be given everything it needs to “report by the end of this year”.
No end date has been set and officials and ministers have refused to say how long it might take, with Rishi Sunak saying that it needs to follow “proper process”.
Inquiry’s ballooning remit
Now The Telegraph can reveal that the Government has handed out contracts for support services during the inquiry that could last up to seven years.
The inquiry’s remit has ballooned since the terms of reference were first announced last year and demands are being made for it to be extended further to include issues, such as a decade of austerity, structural racism, and the condition of hospitals and their IT systems.
Graham Stringer, a Labour MP and the co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on pandemic response and recovery, said: “I think [the inquiry] has become irrelevant and very expensive.
“During the Covid period, I thought the Government got it wrong and I wanted an inquiry. We now have a very expensive and very bloated inquiry.”
Analysis by The Telegraph showed that alongside the 63 lawyers working directly for the inquiry, more than 100 have been named either as the official representatives of “core participants” or have submitted documents on their behalf in recent weeks.
Those designated as “core participants” – people who have a significant role to play in the hearings – can apply for their legal fees to be covered by the Government at up to £220 an hour per lawyer.
The Government has already handed out 37 contracts for the inquiry with a combined value of £113,990,679.
Analysis by Tussell, which monitors public sector procurement, showed this includes legal contracts worth £36,972,200.
One of the largest public contracts, for an “e-disclosure” system to allow for documents to be shared securely online, is worth £11.8 million and will run for five years, with an option to extend it for a further two years. The contract began last summer.
A spokesman for the inquiry said that they could not comment on the length of contracts issued by the Government.
The spokesman insisted that Baroness Hallett, the retired High Court judge who will chair the inquiry, “is determined that the UK Covid-19 Inquiry will not drag on”.
They added: “The inquiry is making fast progress with six investigations already open and public hearings to take witness evidence starting in June. To ensure its recommendations are timely, the chair has promised to publish regular reports.”
The inquiry’s own costs stand at about £15 million so far, the spokesman said, adding: “All inquiry spend is rigorously reviewed to get the best value for the public purse.”
The current costs to the public purse are likely to be the tip of the iceberg for an inquiry with a wide remit which has only held a handful of preliminary hearings so far.
There are currently three modules identified by the inquiry, but their website suggests that as many as a further eight could be added in the coming months.
The current bill of nearly £114 million does not include payments for legal representation for core participants, a list of interested parties which will grow alongside the number of modules.
Those granted participation status include government departments, the NHS, representatives of bereaved families, support groups including those for people with long Covid, the British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Nursing, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and charities including Mind.
The payment of their legal fees will not be means tested. But according to the protocol for costs: “Awards will generally not be made… in respect of the legal expenses of substantial bodies, or of individuals who could reasonably expect to be met by such bodies, unless there are special circumstances which justify a call on public funds.”
Many of the larger bodies involved in the hearings are already publicly funded organisations, such as the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care.
The Prime Minister has capped the legal costs at £220 an hour for leading counsel, £175 for experienced solicitors and £100 an hour for trainees.
Lawyers have been told that they will be limited to working 40 hours a week unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative MP and the chairman of the Commons liaison committee, said that recommendations from previous inquiries include that they “should be set a timeline and a budget by Parliament”, but it has not happened in this case.
He said that “unfortunately, governments use public inquiries to kick things into [the] very long grass” and that the Government “must conduct its own internal inquiries and implement the lessons to be learned very much more quickly than this inquiry”.
Mr Stringer echoed his calls, saying that the UK is “still vulnerable to a new virus” as is evident from a recent case of bird fly passing to a person.
“This inquiry is not going to help us prepare for the next infectious disease that arrives, so it either needs to carry on and it’ll be of importance to historians,” he said.
“What we need is a short, sharp, focused inquiry into what happens and how we can best prepare for the next deadly infectious disease that arrives, as it surely will.”
It can be revealed that the “core participants” of the inquiry are arguing for a much wider range of issues to be considered, including the effect of a decade of austerity, structural racism in the UK, violence against doctors and NHS staff progression.
Documents published this week showed that lawyers are arguing for specialist issues to be considered for a broad range of interested parties.
The BMA argued that the inquiry should look at the “state of healthcare systems entering the pandemic”, including the condition of hospitals and IT systems and the “repeated failures to address the longstanding problem of staff recruitment and retention”.
The doctors’ union also wants to look at issues surrounding “staff training, progression and opportunities to learn clinical skills needed for the future of the medical workforce” and “increased levels of violence and abuse experienced by healthcare workers”.
The bereaved families submitted a request for an “expert in structural racism” to be appointed alongside the experts already advising on race and discrimination.
The request came amid mounting pressure from the groups for structural racism to be considered as a part of every module, despite Jacqueline Carey, the counsel for the inquiry, telling a recent hearing that “including these matters is neither necessary nor proportionate”.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group has also requested that the impact of a decade of austerity be examined, an issue that was first raised by the TUC.
The union is a core participant across all current modules. In its submission for the latest hearing, it noted that its members from the Royal College of Midwives, the British Dietetics Association and the Royal College of Podiatry have a particular interest in the impact of coronavirus on healthcare.
Other demands from participants relate to the running of the inquiry, including for young witnesses to be assessed for “triggers” to be examined in advance as well as for air filters, ventilation and carbon dioxide monitors to be fitted in hearing venues.
The final decisions on the scope lie with Lady Hallett. At a hearing last month when asked to broaden the scope of the inquiry, she said: “Whenever I have made a decision, everything I keep under review. Nothing is closed. My mind is never closed. So I undertake to give very careful consideration to all the submissions that were made today.”
There were more than 20,000 responses to her consultation on the terms of reference.
Lady Hallett has already committed to “listening to and considering carefully the experiences of those who have suffered hardship or loss as a result of the pandemic” through a process called Every Story Matters.
The “listening exercise” is being designed so that “anyone and everyone” in the UK can contribute. Hugo Keith, the lead counsel to the inquiry, said that it will be designed to take the “accounts of tens, or possibly hundreds, of thousands of people”.
The responses will be summarised for use during the inquiry.
In a note published this week, Ms Carey said that “given the scale of the tragedy brought about the pandemic”, they are also trying to establish a way for “those who were lost to be commemorated as part of the inquiries process”.
The team is exploring ways to do this, “including by way of a commemorative memorial in the future hearing centre, through the inquiries public hearings, and through the inquiries website”.
‘Inquiry will not drag on for decades’
At a hearing earlier this month, Lady Hallett said the inquiry “will not drag on for decades” and she has “been determined from the outset that the inquiry must reach conclusions and make recommendations as soon as possible if we are to achieve our aim of learning lessons and reducing suffering in any future pandemic”.
But with no end date and the first of potentially 11 different “modules” beginning its evidence in June, it is well on its way to becoming the most expensive investigation of its kind.
That title is currently held by the £192 million Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which took 12 years between being announced in 1998 and reporting in 2010.
There are 63 lawyers, including 12 KCs, who have been hired to assist Lady Hallett.
Under the Government’s rules relating to legal representation at public expense, fees for leading counsel are set at £220 per hour and junior counsel at £120 per hour, meaning barristers working a 37-hour week would be paid £8,140 and £4,440 respectively.
This means that just the legal team working directly for the inquiry could cost in excess of £14 million per year.
A similar number of lawyers were employed by the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, while the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, which cost £5.4 million, employed only three barristers for much of the time.
Now, an analysis by The Telegraph revealed that there are already more than 100 lawyers currently working on behalf of the core participants, people or organisations who have been recognised by the chairman as having a specific interest in the work of the inquiry.
Core participants can apply for their legal costs to be covered by the inquiry, although it has said the “substantial bodies” can expect to foot their own bill. Many of the organisations involved, such as the NHS and the Department of Health, are already funded by the public purse.
Many of the legal teams are familiar names on the inquiry circuit. Martin Smith, a partner at Fieldfisher, is solicitor to the inquiry, having held the same role at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and the 2003 Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly.
Saunders Law is representing core participants having been involved in the Grenfell, Infected Blood and Undercover Policing inquiries.
Leigh Day, which was embroiled in controversy over abuse allegations to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, is also representing core participants having been instrumental in the infected blood hearings.
All three firms are considered to be experts in the field of inquests and inquiries.
When she opened the hearings last July, Lady Hallett said that the inquiry would be conducted as “speedily as possible so lessons are learned before another pandemic strikes”.
The investigation would be broken down into at least nine modules, she said, which would run consecutively.
The inquiry has so far announced three modules, but the website suggests that there could now be a further eight added to that, making a total of 11.
The current modules are resilience and preparedness, core UK decision-making, political governance and the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems in the UK.
Other potential modules include vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment, the care sector, the test and trace system, and education, children and young persons.
Each module is likely to include new core participants, with new legal teams that could be funded by the public purse. Some participants, including NHS England and government departments, will be core participants across most of the modules.
Sir Bernard said: “It’s the job of the inquiry chair, the presiding judge, to interpret her own remit.
“When I was chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, we did a report on the Chilcot Inquiry, which went on for far too long and cost far too much money. One of the recommendations we made was that inquiries should be set a timeline and a budget by Parliament.
“Well, that has not happened in this case. Now it is a judicial process, and it must be allowed to run its own course.”
He added: “Unfortunately, governments use public inquiries to kick things into [the] very long grass, not necessarily to advance a rapid understanding and I think what the Government must do – and I’m sure to an extent it has done it already – but it must conduct its own internal inquiries and implement the lessons to be learned very much more quickly than this inquiry.
“Without wishing to interfere with the inquiry, I hope it will concentrate on lessons to be learned and implemented now rather than going in for who’s to blame for what. Blaming people gains nothing. The only point of a public inquiry is to learn lessons for the future.”
A spokesman for the inquiry said: “We will be announcing further investigations [modules] soon. The full list of topics the UK Covid-19 Inquiry will investigate are set out in our terms of reference, provided by the Prime Minister last June. The terms of reference set the scope for the inquiry, and were agreed after a public consultation.”
The spokesman said that the inquiry’s costs were “significantly lower” than the almost £114 million issued in government contracts.
“Our spend in setting up and starting the Inquiry, to January 2023, is just under £15 million. We intend to publish our financial information regularly,” they said.
A Government spokesperson said: "We do not recognise this figure. The Covid Inquiry is entirely independent of Government and it’s right that we allow them to continue their important work."