The UK Covid-19 Inquiry – the risks and opportunities for businesses in the year ahead

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From Dominic Cummings to Nicola Sturgeon, 2023 was a noisy, headline-grabbing year for the UK’s public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s coming in 2024? And what does it mean for businesses?

In terms of media exposure, the first full year in the life of the UK’s official Covid-19 Inquiry was a resounding success. The proceedings at Dorland House have proven a prime source for headlines, the inner workings of government were revealed in their full soap-opera dysfunction and there was a face-off between the Inquiry and the Cabinet Office when the latter declined to disclose WhatsApp messages between then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and various advisers.

But organisations at the forefront of the pandemic response, as well as bereaved families, might well have read the headlines and wondered if this was really the Inquiry they were sold. When Mr Johnson announced the Inquiry in May 2021, he told the British public that ‘amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future.’ 

That sober statement of the Inquiry’s purpose feels out of keeping with media coverage of the Inquiry business that actually took place in 2023. The Cabinet Office’s judicial review against the Inquiry’s WhatsApp disclosure notice, though ultimately unsuccessful, called into question the Inquiry’s powers of evidence and risked undermining its ability to conduct proceedings ‘rigorously and candidly’, as Mr Johnson had put it. And whenever the politicians sat in the witness box, onlookers might have been forgiven for feeling that Baroness Hallett’s Inquiry was being used for something other than its true purpose.

In January 2024, the Inquiry’s attention turned from the UK Government’s response to the pandemic, to the devolved government response, but the tenor of media coverage has remained the same, with a continued emphasis on individual politicians in preference to policy. The revelation that the Scottish Government encouraged systematic deletion of relevant WhatsApp messages also served as an unhelpful reminder of the crisis that threatened to engulf the Inquiry when the Cabinet Office applied for judicial review of the WhatsApp disclosure notice.

Counterintuitively, perhaps, the Inquiry could do with a ‘boring’ year, and helpfully the Inquiry’s schedule means 2024 is likely to prove less headline-provoking. Once the Inquiry completes its investigations into the devolved government responses to the pandemic, attention will turn to Module 3: the impact on healthcare systems  across the UK. The preliminary hearing for Module 3 is scheduled for 10 April 2024, with public hearings set for the autumn. It had previously been expected that public hearings for Module 4 (vaccines and therapeutics) would be held over the summer, but the Inquiry now expects to have its hands full with evidence-gathering for Module 3.

Organisations in sectors covered by forthcoming modules should take advantage of the delay by ensuring they have fully assessed the short and long-term impact of the Inquiry, and its ultimate findings and recommendations, on them. Indeed, the Inquiry’s evidence-gathering powers mean they would be wise to take an interest in the Inquiry before the Inquiry takes an interest in them, particularly where there is the potential for reputational and legal exposure. For those modules which have already been announced (notably vaccine rollout, public procurement and the care sector) and where Core Participant applications have closed, there must now be a real sense of urgency to ensure that risk is under control.

Organisations impacted by future modules whose Core Participant application window is yet to open still have time to discuss with experienced public inquiry lawyers the benefits of involvement in those future modules as Core Participants. These unannounced modules will include areas such as test and trace, education and delivery of public services.

One as-yet-unannounced module with wide cross-sectoral relevance is the Inquiry’s investigation into the Government’s business and financial responses to the pandemic. The Inquiry’s findings (not only on this issue) will shape how future pandemic planning and response will work, so large organisations and industry bodies in sectors impacted by the pandemic are likely to have a particular interest in helping shape the Inquiry’s findings in this area. In those circumstances, applying for Core Participant status can be a potentially powerful tool in assisting with a business’s longer-term policy aims, and in the nearer-term affording it a voice in proceedings.

It would be understandable if media coverage of the Inquiry’s proceedings in 2023 induced a certain anxiety about the potential for involvement in the Inquiry. But it would be a mistake to allow that to get in the way of proactive engagement with the Inquiry. Businesses on the frontline of the pandemic have much to gain from doing so – and may have more to lose than they think if they don’t.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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