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Covid-19: Public Inquiry

Volume 712: debated on Tuesday 19 April 2022

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

I will call Marsha De Cordova to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the covid-19 public inquiry.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I begin by saying a huge thank you to many organisations, including Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Disability Rights UK, Sense and the Royal National Institute of Blind People, for all their tireless hard work in this area supporting the many people who have been impacted by the pandemic.

Covid-19 is the worst public health emergency and global health pandemic we have faced in a lifetime, having devastating effects globally. Here in the UK we were not exempt, with over 150,000 lives lost, which was one of the worst death rates. Having significant and unequal human and economic effects, the pandemic disproportionately impacted women, including pregnant women, as well as children, disabled people, and black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. Moreover, people’s class or where they live has an impact, exposing and exacerbating the inequalities as well as creating many new ones.

The pandemic severely tested this Government’s preparedness, resilience and co-ordination, but there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Government were not prepared for the pandemic and they lacked any credible strategy or plan to mitigate the situation. How they responded to the unprecedented challenges they faced raised a wealth of questions. The Government resisted mounting calls and pressure for a public inquiry until May last year. There needs to be a comprehensive investigation into all aspects of the pandemic and into the Government’s response to establish the facts, rebuild trust with the British people, hold power to account and learn lessons to ensure that the mistakes made will never happen again. The Government said that the inquiry would start in spring this year—here we are—but they have recently confirmed that public hearings will not begin until 2023. That is not good enough and is a huge blow to everyone, including the bereaved families who need justice and answers.

We know that there will now be two inquiries: one by the UK Government and one by the Scottish Government. Both inquiries will look at a wide range of issues, including the use of public health powers and expertise, such as medical evidence, restrictions and the wearing of masks, and health and social care policy, such as PPE availability, care homes, Test and Trace, and the vaccination roll-out. They will also look at the financial impacts, including statutory sick pay—or the lack of adequate statutory sick pay—public sector procurement safeguards, furlough and business support.

While the inquiry seeks to cover a wider range of areas, I strongly believe that the failure to include specific reference to disabled people is a grave omission. When I asked the Minister in February whether the inquiry would have a specific focus on disability, she replied, “Yes”. However, without explicit inclusion in the inquiry’s terms of reference, how can disabled people have confidence in the inquiry and confidence that lessons can and will be learned? So, today I will focus my speech on the impact of the pandemic on disabled people.

Between January and November 2020, of the 50,888 covid-related deaths in the UK, 30,296 were of disabled people or of someone with an underlying health condition, which accounts for six in 10 covid-related deaths. And that is not just any old data; it is data from the Office for National Statistics. During that same period in 2020, the risk of death involving covid was 3.1 times higher for disabled men than for non-disabled men, and the risk for disabled women was 3.5 times higher than for non-disabled women.

That deeply concerning disparity must be examined and must form part of an inquiry, as I believe it is the one thing that we really need to learn the lessons of, and why. Disabled people were one of the groups who were disproportionately impacted the most by the pandemic, and that remains the case now. Disabled people and their families have suffered the worst form of hardship and loss, and they really were an afterthought, including on—but not limited to—issues related to the labour market and employment, the move from working at home to hybrid working and so on, and the risks associated with face-to-face working, particularly for people living with sight loss. There are also the issues around education and learning, and for young people and children education and learning were incredibly challenging, but there were also issues when it came to accessing goods and services within the covid regulations. I have heard of so many instances at the start of the pandemic when many people who are blind or partially sighted could not even access food deliveries.

That is why, early on in the pandemic, I set out 10 clear asks of the Government, in order to alleviate some of the pandemic’s worst effects. However, in the words of one woman who has multiple disabilities:

“Thousands, if not millions, of disabled people lost their support network, which set back progress and caused so many other issues. Whether that is health or social care, we are human beings and deserve to have as much support as anyone else.”

She could not be more right.

Also highlighted in the report by Sense last year, which was entitled, “ Locked Down and Abandoned: Disabled People’s Experiences of Covid-19”, were the necessities of daily life that were involved, whether that was in education, employment, social contact, exercise, accessing food and essential supplies, medical and social care, financial support, testing kits and PPE. We know that three in four disabled people believed that their needs were overlooked, and that they have not received enough support.

That is why I believe that disabled people must be at the heart of this inquiry—yes, to learn the lessons and to be prepared for the future, but also to tackle some of the deep-rooted inequalities once and for all, and to ensure that the needs of disabled people are properly understood and prioritised.

Why is that important? First, we know that disabled people were unable to access essential support, including essential financial support, and services in the community. The introduction of the Care Act easements under the Coronavirus Act 2020 contributed to a cut or reduction of essential social care support, at a time when support should have been enhanced.

The social care system was not fit for purpose prior to the pandemic—I think we would all agree with that—and required significant investment and reform. However, despite the expiration of the easements, social care support has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. One of the worst practices was the blanket use of “do not attempt resuscitation” orders. Many families believed that they were being applied without their informed consent, and no system was in place to prevent people from not receiving lifesaving care just based on their underlying health condition. It prompts the question: why did the Government not do enough to identify the groups that were at greater risk during this pandemic?

When it comes to financial support, nearly 2 million ill and disabled people were excluded from the £20 uplift that was applied to universal credit, leaving many having to make difficult choices. The financial impact is only being worsened by the cost of living crisis. Those in receipt of social security benefits have faced a real-terms cut in support, which will push them further into poverty and hardship.

Secondly, the failure to include disabled people in policy and decision making meant that decisions were made that led to devastating consequences. For instance, not identifying vulnerable groups resulted in many being unable to access support. If a person was not classed as clinically extremely vulnerable, their support was restricted. The rigid list that was compiled meant that the vast majority of disabled people were left without support, including those with motor neurone disease, and blind and partially sighted people.

Thirdly, inclusion and accessibility were neither considered nor adhered to. Something as basic as producing inclusive information in accessible formats did not happen. That should have been the bare minimum. Throughout the pandemic, communicating key messages, information and guidance with the British people was vital, yet the daily press briefings that we all tuned into did not have any British Sign Language interpretation for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Imagine if, during those discussions and meetings when decisions were being taken, there was input from disabled people or the organisations that work with them and represent them: just maybe, things could have been different quite early on.

Many testing sites were inaccessible. Home testing kits were, and frankly still are, inaccessible. There was a requirement to read barcodes, and instructions were not available in alternative formats. I know from my own lived personal experience the difficulties of having to use those testing kits. Goodness knows, I could not redo those boxes and send them back—it was impossible.

Finally, mental health and emotional wellbeing were tested to the limit for many disabled people. Prior to the pandemic, disabled people were already experiencing greater levels of loneliness and isolation, and the pandemic only exacerbated that. Two in three disabled people said that their mental health worsened during the pandemic.

Overall, I believe that the treatment of disabled people was well under par. That is why I consistently called for the Government to carry out and publish quality impact assessments, but my pleas went largely unheard. The one time they did publish an impact assessment, it was four months after the enactment of the Coronavirus Act. The inquiry must investigate the lack of impact assessments produced and gain a fuller understanding of what data and evidence was used when introducing policies. Government actions and decisions could have prevented the many devastating consequences that disabled people faced. The inquiry will consider any disparities evident in the impact of coronavirus, including those related to protected characteristics as set out under the Equality Act 2010, but it must also look at how protected groups intersect and the greater and wider impacts, and consider why there was not sufficient thought and planning for those groups.

The inquiry should take a human rights-led approach, such as that set out in the terms of reference for the covid public inquiry in Scotland. The omission of reference to the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK inquiry has not gone unnoticed. I urge that it is added following the consultation process. I hope the Minister can say in her response why the UK Government took the decision not to include that Act. Does she agree that the only remedy would be to ensure that the inquiry gives due consideration to it?

As with all public inquiries, this one must be fully accessible to the public. Documents have still not been published in accessible formats, including easy read, which is not right. The website should have other formats—not just PDFs, but HTML and Word. It should not be on the user to contact the inquiry to ask, “Please can you send me an accessible version”. Such versions should be available alongside all the other documents. Again, this goes back to basics. To build trust and confidence in the inquiry, the terms of reference should state that an accessible communications policy will be implemented. That would go a long way.

I would really like the Minister to say that all parts of the covid inquiry, including hearings, will be accessible and inclusive, including all audio and visual forms of the inquiry, and for her to confirm that British Sign Language interpretation will be available. Millions of deaf and disabled people would benefit, but it would also show that the inquiry seeks to be accessible.

Will the Minister tell us why there is yet another delay? As I have highlighted, there has been mounting pressure and increasing calls for an inquiry. For public hearings to only begin in 2023—another year for people to wait—is frankly not good enough. We have a chair, but the inquiry has not formally started, and a letter from the Prime Minister is required for it to do so. That must happen now, so that no more time is wasted before we learn the lessons from the mistakes that were made.

When the terms of reference are ready and published, I hope that there will be specific reference to disabled people. I think I have given a pretty decent overview of the impact on disabled people: they have been impacted the worst and the most, and due and proper consideration should be given to them. I ask the Minister to encourage the Prime Minister to establish a panel, made up of experts with experience, to support the chair of the inquiry. She will not be surprised to hear me say that that panel should include disabled people and those who were affected by the pandemic.

Finally, will the Minister give assurances that, when preparing for future pandemics—I am sure the Government will do, are doing or have done that, but I would like her to confirm it—disabled people will not be hammered, disadvantaged and dehumanised, as they have been? I need her to give assurances today that that will never happen again.

I welcome this debate, which is on a subject of vital importance: ensuring that the public inquiry into covid-19 is set up in the most effective way possible, so that we may learn lessons from the terrible pandemic. I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on securing it. I will try to respond to her specific points, but let me begin by setting out the current position on the inquiry and the next steps.

The current status was given on 10 March, when the Prime Minister published the draft terms of reference for the public inquiry into covid-19. The inquiry will take place under the Inquiries Act 2005 and will have full formal powers. It will be chaired by the right hon. Baroness Heather Hallett, the former Lady Justice of Appeal, who was also the coroner at the inquest into the 7/7 bombings. As it is vital that we get the inquiry’s terms of reference right—the hon. Lady has asked me many questions on this point—the Prime Minister has asked Baroness Hallett to lead a period of public engagement and consultation before making recommendations to him on any refinements. I will say a little more about that process in a few moments, but first I will describe the inquiry’s remit as it is currently drafted.

The draft terms of reference give the inquiry two aims: to find the facts and to learn lessons for the future. Both are crucial to help us all to understand what happened and what we should learn from the experience. In order to fulfil those aims, the inquiry—quite rightly—will have a very broad scope. The draft terms of reference cover preparedness, the response in the health and care sector, and our economic response. It looks at decision making and its implications at a central, local and devolved level. That all aims to ensure that every part of the UK can learn the lessons needed from this experience to prepare for future pandemics.

I am grateful to the Government for establishing the inquiry to learn lessons from this awful pandemic. The Minister deserves great credit for her leadership of that process. Will she add to those terms of reference the death care sector? She will know that funeral directors, morticians, gravediggers—all those involved at the place of burial or cremation—right through to bereavement councillors faced extraordinary challenges during this time. Access to PPE, the organisation of funerals and vaccination as a priority are all things that I hope the Minister will look at as part of the process, so that if we ever face something similar—heaven help us if we should—we will get it right.

I thank my right hon. Friend for asking those questions. In just a minute I will come to an answer for him.

Importantly, the terms of reference require the inquiry to listen to the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic, including bereaved families, and to investigate any disparities evident in the impact of the pandemic and our responses. This point is crucial, because the draft terms of reference are explicit that the inquiry must look at the protected characteristics in particular, as the hon. Member for Battersea asked me more than once. I confirm that those are age, disability, race, sex, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, gender reassignment, and religion and beliefs. Each of those important issues is already in the scope of the inquiry’s terms of reference.

As I have said, it is vital that we get the terms of reference right, which is precisely why the Prime Minister asked Baroness Hallett to consult on the draft. That consultation opened on 10 March and closed on 7 April. Over the course of four weeks, Baroness Hallett and her team travelled to 11 cities across the UK and spoke to more than 150 bereaved families. They also heard from sector representatives, including those representing children, people with disabilities, and frontline and key workers including funeral directors—I will ensure the list has been extended to other frontline workers—about a range of equality issues.

People have shared their views online as to what the inquiry should investigate, what it should look at first and whether it should set an end date for its hearings. Those responding have offered their suggestions on how people who have been severely impacted by the pandemic, or who have lost loved ones, can be given a voice and be part of the inquiry. By the time the inquiry’s consultation concluded, over 20,000 individuals and organisations had responded. That is an incredible level of response, which demonstrates the depth of feeling held on this matter and the importance of getting this work right. I have no doubt that the views expressed here today on refinements to the terms of reference will also have been made through that process.

As regards Scotland, any inquiry set up by the devolved Administrations may only consider devolved matters. This inquiry will ensure that the whole of the UK can learn the right lessons for the future, and in doing so it will seek to avoid duplication with any inquiry set up on a devolved basis.

The inquiry is now collating and analysing all the responses it received. Baroness Hallett has said that she will make recommendations to the Prime Minister on the final terms of reference in May. In the interests of transparency, Baroness Hallett has committed to publishing a summary of the consultation responses received and the many meetings she has held.

Once the Prime Minister has received Baroness Hallett’s recommendations, he will consider them carefully before finalising the terms of reference and making a further statement. As regards the date when the public hearings will start, the important thing is that the inquiry will begin its formal work this spring, once the terms of reference are finalised. As the Prime Minister has always said, from that point the process, procedure and timing of the inquiry stages will be for the independent chair to determine, and it is right that we respect that.

I will finish by saying that Baroness Hallett has set out that her investigations will begin once the terms of reference are finalised. She has said that she intends to gather evidence throughout the year, with public hearings beginning in 2023. The actual inquiry will start before that, but the hearings will begin in 2023. Baroness Hallett has made it clear that she will do everything in her power to deliver the recommendations as soon as possible.

I have only a couple of minutes left. This has been a valuable debate. I hope I have been able to offer reassurance regarding the inquiry’s draft scope, which is very wide and covers the details that the hon. Member for Battersea asked for, and about the breadth and extent of the consultation process that will no doubt lead to further refinements from other frontline workers.

I extend my thanks to every individual and organisation who took the time to engage with the consultation process, whether online or in person. Their views will be crucial in getting the inquiry’s terms of reference right, in how it is run, and, in due course, in shaping our understanding of how the pandemic has impacted families and communities across the UK, and ensuring that the right lessons are learned.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.