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Covid-19 Pandemic: Public Inquiry

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022

5. For what reason the public inquiry into the covid-19 pandemic will not hold public evidence hearings until 2023. (906415)

The timing of the statutory inquiry’s various stages is, under the Inquiries Act 2005, a matter for its independent chair to determine.

Many bereaved families and campaigners are anxious to hear the truth about the Government’s handling of the pandemic in a public inquiry. Meanwhile, the Government have admitted that none of the Prime Minister’s mobile phone messages up until April 2021 will be accessible to the inquiry, because he got a new phone. In the light of that, will the Minister confirm a date when the public hearings will be formally established?

What the Government are doing is following the statutory provisions of the Inquiries Act 2005, which, as the hon. Lady will recall, was passed by a Labour Government. The Act says that it is up to the inquiry chair, in this case Baroness Heather Hallett. She is a leading figure and is dealing with the matter, and it will be for her to determine dates.

I spoke to some of the bereaved families at the memorial march this week, and they are furious and devastated that the public hearings of the covid inquiry will not be starting in the spring, as promised; instead, it looks as though it will be spring next year. This inquiry cannot be compromised any further, so have the Government learned the lessons from the deletion of the WhatsApp messages, which would no doubt have been crucial evidence in this inquiry, and will they ensure that any pandemic-related messages from Ministers and former Ministers in WhatsApp or private email accounts are passed over and safely stored to prevent further unfortunate losses of evidence?

I do not accept the contention that there has been any loss of evidence. Baroness Hallett has confirmed that her investigation will begin once the terms of reference are finalised. It is logical that evidence has to be gathered before it can be heard, and she has said that she intends to gather evidence throughout this year, with public hearings beginning in 2023. She has made it clear that she will do everything in her power to deliver recommendations as soon as possible. We all want that.