Covid inquiry: Health department slammed for evidence delays

The government has come under fire yet again for failing to hand over key evidence to the UK’s official inquiry into Covid-19, which lawyers say could have a “detrimental effect” on its investigations.

At a preliminary hearing for the inquiry’s third module on Wednesday, counsel to the inquiry Jacqueline Carey criticised the Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) delayed response to a request for evidence made more than six months ago.

The chief medical officers in England and Northern Ireland, the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, and the UK Health Security Agency have also not yet provided an opening statement to the inquiry for module 3, on healthcare systems, which will begin hearing evidence next year.

Rule 9 requests, which allow the inquiry to demand evidence for witnesses, were sent out in March, April and May this year.

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Carey said the latest delays had caused the inquiry to be “concerned about slippage and deadlines for responses and the impact that will have not just on module 3, but for other modules as well”.

“The inquiry is not unrealistic about the demands other inquiry modules have placed on recipients… nor are we blind to the demands these organisations and individuals face in their day job,” said Carey, “but we are concerned about these delays and the detrimental effect that these will inevitably have on module 3.”

Representatives of core participants in the inquiry also criticised the delays. Speaking on behalf of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Allison Munroe called the delays “extremely unhelpful”, adding: “It has a knock-on effect, not only on the investigative work that the inquiry has to do, on the participants in preparing for their own questions and preparing generally.”

It’s not the first time government departments have stalled on handing over evidence. In May, openDemocracy revealed that the Cabinet Office had refused to submit certain evidence related to Boris Johnson and his aide, claiming it to be “unambiguously irrelevant” for module 2, which begins hearing evidence next month. A judicial review later forced the government department to hand over the evidence.

The inquiry had granted the DHSC, headed during the pandemic by Matt Hancock, the ability to submit its opening statement for module 3 in separate sections. Despite this, it still did not provide the evidence in time.

“It cannot be the case that some recipients need over six months to respond to requests or acceptable that they miss agreed deadlines for statements to be provided in smaller, more discreet sections,” the inquiry heard.

Module 3, which is set to hear evidence in autumn 2024, will examine how healthcare systems such as hospitals and pharmacies managed the pandemic, as well as the distribution and quality of personal protective equipment (PPE), do not resuscitate (DNR) notices, and NHS 111 response times.

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