Written 2nd January 2024 by James Claughton
Public hearings for Module 2 (Core UK Decision-making and Political Governance) in the Covid 19 Inquiry (“the Inquiry”) concluded in December with evidence from some of the most prominent individuals involved in government decision making during the pandemic. Module 2 has been split into parts and amongst other aspects is considering political and administrative governance and decision making for the UK which includes the initial response, as well as the civil service and political response.
Modules 2A, B and C will address similar issues for each of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Evidence of Boris Johnson
On 6th December 2023, Boris Johnson made his first appearance at the Inquiry which he set up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his appearance was eagerly anticipated and attracted significant press attention. His evidence followed that of Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab, Dominic Cummings, and Michael Gove and preceded that of the current prime minister Rishi Sunak. He gave evidence for two days and was questioned by the Inquiry’s lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, as well as representatives acting on behalf of groups including the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice.
Again, perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr Johnson’s attendance was not without controversy. Before he even started, the Chair, Lady Hallet expressed her concerns over leaks in the press of his witness statement and protestors had to be removed from the Inquiry hearing room.
Johnson was questioned on decisions made during his term as prime minister. He was in the role for three years from 2019 to 2022. Johnson conceded that he “should have twigged” the seriousness of Covid 19. Boris Johnson also accepted that “unquestionably” mistakes were made by his government during the pandemic and that he took “responsibility for all the decisions” made and apologised for the “pain and the loss and the suffering” during the pandemic.
The Inquiry heard that 5,000 WhatsApp messages between January 2020 and June 2020 were unavailable. Counsel to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC, said that the technical report provided by the former prime minister’s solicitors suggested that a factory reset may have occurred on the phone, however Johnson denied any specific knowledge of this.
Helen MacNamara, a senior civil servant told the inquiry that there was “institutional bias against women” in decision making during the pandemic. The former prime minister accepted that his team of “covid decision makers” should have had a better gender balance.
Evidence of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
On 11 December 2023, the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, gave evidence to the Inquiry. He gave evidence for one day. He stated that he was “deeply sorry to all those who lost loved ones”. Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer during the pandemic.
He was questioned on the “Eat Out to Help Out” discount hospitality scheme. The scheme was announced on 8 July 2020 and then introduced on 3 August 2020, (at the end of the first lockdown). It offered discounts of up to 50% on food and drink in the hospitality sector. The scheme cost the Treasury somewhere in the region of £840 million not to mention the likely exploitation by rogue traders and fraudsters.
Hugo Keith KC queried why scientific advisers and the health secretary were not consulted about the scheme, given the increased risk of transmission of Covid 19 with increased numbers of people congregating indoors. Sunak defended the scheme and said it was a “micro-policy” as part of the overall reopening plan.
The Inquiry had previously heard that then UK chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, were not aware of the “eat out to help out” scheme until it was announced. However, Sunak said that there was “a month for people to raise concerns that they may have had”.
Sunak was also questioned about unavailable WhatsApp messages and said he did not have access to WhatsApp messages from the pandemic period. He said he had changed phones multiple times since the start of the pandemic. When asked if he should have tried to save messages he said, “I don’t recall anyone in my office making that recommendation or observation to me at the time.”
Further Covid 19 Inquiry public hearings
Public hearings will continue in 2024 with preliminary hearings in relation to Module 4 (Vaccines and Therapeutics) scheduled for February and Module 3 (Impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on healthcare systems across the UK) expected to commence in the autumn.
Specialist Public Inquiry and Inquest Lawyers (London & Manchester)
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James joined Olliers in 2020, having studied Law with Business at the University of Liverpool followed by a Masters in Legal Practice.
James has a particular interest in the investigation stage of cases and has a significant caseload of pre charge cases. He frequently makes representations against charge on behalf of clients under investigation.