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Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 24 February 2022

On 15 December, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of the right hon. Baroness Heather Hallett as chair of the public inquiry into covid-19. The inquiry is set to begin its work in spring 2022.

On Monday, the Prime Minister told the House that we must learn to live with covid-19. This is cold comfort for the bereaved families whose loved ones will not have that opportunity. What does the Minister have to say to families like mine who feel that the inquiry is simply being kicked into the long grass? Does she agree, now that all restrictions will be lifted, that there is absolutely no reason why the inquiry cannot move forward immediately?

I sympathise fully with the hon. Gentleman. He has told us about his family bereavement many times, and we have all been very moved by those comments.

The inquiry will play a key role in ensuring that we learn the lessons from this terrible pandemic. To do that, we must get the terms of reference right. When the Prime Minister appointed Baroness Hallett as chair, he said he would consult her and Ministers from the devolved Administrations on the inquiry’s terms of reference, and he said that Baroness Hallett would then run a process of public consultation and engagement before the terms of reference are finalised.

To give an update, the Prime Minister has now consulted Baroness Hallett and the process of consulting the devolved Administrations is well advanced. The next stage will be to ensure that those most affected by the pandemic, including those who have sadly lost loved ones, can have their say. This process will begin and conclude very soon.

I associate myself with the earlier comments. My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Ukraine right now.

Throughout the pandemic, disabled people and those with underlying health conditions accounted for six in 10 covid-related deaths. Shockingly, when the Prime Minister declared the end of all covid restrictions and measures on Monday, there was no plan for how he would support and protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Have the Government not learned any lessons from the last two years? Will this public inquiry have a specific focus on the disproportionate impact of covid on disabled people?

I associate myself with the hon. Lady’s comments about Ukraine. South Derbyshire and the Derby area have a very large diaspora of Ukrainian-related families, so my thoughts and prayers are with them today.

To answer the hon. Lady’s question, and I will try to answer questions in my new role, I believe the answer is yes.

The covid inquiry has a website and a chair, but it has not formally started and a letter from the Prime Minister is required, so holding hearings and collecting evidence by the spring is going to be incredibly difficult. In addition, “spring” is a vague period of time; daffodils are already out in my garden. We have been promised time and again that the inquiry hearings would start this spring. The Prime Minister told us that, as did Health Ministers, the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Paymaster General, and now another Minister is telling us that. I am tired of coming back to this Dispatch Box and reminding Ministers of this but not being given a date.

I ask the Minister to be straight with me and, more importantly, to be straight with the bereaved families, who are very worried that this inquiry is not going to start in the spring, that we will not be hearing what happened during covid and that we will not be learning the lessons. Will the Minister tell me today when the terms of reference will be passed to the chair for consultations to start and when the inquiry hearings will formally begin?

Derbyshire is a lot further north than Putney and the daffodils are not out in my garden—we still have snowdrops, which are very pretty, so spring is definitely a moveable feast.

The UK Government are negotiating and discussing terms of reference with the devolved Assemblies, and when we receive their replies, we will absolutely move this forward with Baroness Hallett, who is ready to go. The Prime Minister wants this to start as soon as possible, and it will start by the spring.