The inquiry into serial killer Lucy Letby’s crimes will become statutory, the Health Secretary Steve Barclay has announced.
The move to a statutory footing grants the inquiry legal powers to compel witnesses, including both former and current staff of the Countess of Chester Hospital Trust, to provide evidence.
The decision comes shortly after Letby, 33, was sentenced to a whole-life term for murdering seven babies and trying to murder six more.
Mr Barclay said: “The crimes committed by Lucy Letby are truly harrowing, and my thoughts remain with the families of her victims.
“Following her conviction, we announced an inquiry and said the nature of this inquiry would be shaped by the families.
“Having now discussed this with the families, we will launch a full statutory inquiry giving it the legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence.
“This statutory public inquiry will aim to give the families the answers they need and ensure lessons are learned.”
The upcoming inquiry aims to examine the broader context of events at the Trust, including the handling of concerns and governance, alongside scrutinising the measures undertaken by both regulators and the wider NHS.
The specific scope of the inquiry’s investigation will be outlined in the forthcoming publication of its terms of reference.
The Government said it will look to appoint a judge to chair the inquiry and the Health and Social Care Secretary is working with colleagues across Government to identify a suitable candidate as soon as possible.
Mr Barclay’s decision follows increasing pressure from the bereaved families and their lawyers for the probe to be put on a statutory footing.
Ministers had previously said a non-statutory inquiry into the circumstances at the Countess of Chester Hospital “was found to be the most appropriate option”.
Lawyers representing families of some of the babies attacked by Letby have welcomed the announcement, insisting that “without these powers, the inquiry would have been ineffectual”.
Richard Scorer, head of abuse law and public inquiries at law firm Slater and Gordon, said: “We welcome the Government’s announcement that the Lucy Letby inquiry will be upgraded to a statutory inquiry.
“It is essential that the chair has the powers to compel witnesses to give evidence under oath, and to force disclosure of documents. Without these powers, the inquiry would have been ineffectual and our clients would have been deprived of the answers they need and deserve.
“This inquiry is essential for the parents of Letby’s victims, but it is also important for all of us.”
Dr Ravi Jayaram, one of the doctors who helped catch Letby by raising concerns to senior managers at the Countess of Chester Hospital, told ITV News: “I don’t understand why, right at the start, there was a rush to say it was going to be non-statutory.
“I’m glad this is going to be a public inquiry because no stone will be left unturned and questions that need to be asked will be asked and the answers will be found – unlike in a non-statutory inquiry where questions that will cause difficult or embarrassing answers won’t get asked.”
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting also welcomed the news, saying: “It’s right that the wishes of the families have now been taken into account.
“No stone can be left unturned in getting to the truth of this awful tragedy. Nothing short of the full force of the law would do.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “NHS leaders will welcome the announcement of the inquiry into what happened in Chester and that it will be on a statutory basis. It’s vital that lessons are learnt by the NHS, its regulators, clinicians and leaders.
“There are of course a series of questions that are being raised by the events in Chester and the inquiry will be best placed to establish the facts of these events and to draw conclusions and recommendations for the trust and the wider NHS.
“NHS leaders will support the work of the inquiry in whatever way they can.”
Parliamentary and health service ombudsman Rob Behrens said: “It is only right that there is such an inquiry into how she was able to carry out such heinous crimes for two years before her employer raised concerns with the police.
“This is the only way the families can get to the truth of what happened. It’s the very least they deserve.
“Having said that, we still need a thorough, independent review of NHS leadership, accountability and culture, and it needs cross-party support.”