The recent COVID-19 Inquiry's public consultation on its draft terms of reference has captured a substantial amount of public engagement; balancing the representation of all affected groups and avoiding lengthy delays looks like a real challenge.

Baroness Hallett’s draft terms of reference (draft terms), published on 11 March, requested the views of individuals and organisations by 7 April on the scope of the COVID-19 Inquiry. Updates to the inquiry website show that around 20,000 responses were submitted and throughout the consultation period, Baroness Hallett met with over 150 bereaved families and many sector representatives to hear their views.

One of the key questions the inquiry consulted on was whether the draft terms cover all the areas that should be addressed in the inquiry. This article will try to highlight some of the key themes that interested groups have raised in response to the draft terms. This will no doubt only represent a fraction of the suggestions the inquiry will be considering, but even this snapshot shows the complexity of the work to be undertaken over the coming months.

Sectors

Representatives from the health care and hospitality sectors have been particularly vocal on the draft terms.

The NHS Confederation and the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman have published their responses which highlight the breadth of health care services which need examination. Mental health, ambulance services and residential care, to name a few, were highlighted as not being explicitly present in the draft terms and are in danger of being overshadowed by the hospital care of COVID-19 patients.

Punch Taverns, the night-time economy advisor for Greater Manchester and the Night Time Industries Association have all released statements that their responses to the draft terms requesting that further attention should be given to the hospitality industry, considering that public health measures often targeted shutting down the industry.

The draft terms do include the ‘economic response to the pandemic’ and ‘the closure and reopening of the hospitality sectors’ within the scope of its factual narrative but it is their view that the industry, so heavily impacted by the pandemic economically, should be given greater attention.

Affected Groups

Submissions have also been made to the inquiry arguing that young people and minority groups have not been given the attention they require in the draft terms.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Robert Halfon MP (Chair of the Education Committee) and the NASUWT teachers’ union have all raised the lack of attention given to the experiences of young people through the pandemic. The draft terms do include ‘restrictions on attendance at places of education’ but there is a vast range of experiences this could include. The potentially generational impact on young people, which ranges from four-year-olds first learning to socialise to teenagers taking crucial exams, is so broad that the current draft terms could easily result in investigations omitting key issues.

The Committee on the Administration of Justice (JUSTICE) also highlights the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those from low socio-economic backgrounds. JUSTICE suggests the need for closer examination of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on black, asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and whether public health decision-making contributed to this.

JUSTICE states that this would be crucial for the inquiry to gain credibility and the trust of BAME communities. Labour MP Marsha De Cordova also criticised the draft terms for failing to mention disabled people.

The draft terms refer to the disproportionate impact on those with a protected characteristic under the Equality Act which would include disabled and minority groups, but these submissions indicate this reference may not be enough to ensure vulnerable and disproportionately affected groups are sufficiently considered.

Conclusions

The draft terms are rarely silent on the issues which are raised which shows the efforts made by the Inquiry to keep the draft terms broad. This flexibility would allow the inquiry to follow-up on whatever issues become of most interest as the investigation develops.

However, the vagueness of the scope has left concerns that issues could be diminished or fall from the scope as the investigation progresses. Headlines like “Covid inquiry called out for ‘disgraceful’ omission of disabled people” (ran by The Daily Telegraph) demonstrate the passionate public interest in this inquiry and enormous challenge facing Baroness Hallett to satisfy all parties.

The balance must be struck between hearing from as many impacted groups as possible, producing meaningful conclusions and completing the inquiry in good time. Fears of lengthy delays are included in many of the responses which also call for the scope to be expanded.

Baroness Hallett’s final version of the terms of reference will be sent for approval from the Prime Minister in May. It will certainly be of interest to see what suggestions have been incorporated.