The Covid Inquiry was accused of ‘marginalising’ the bereaved on its opening day after the chair doubled down on stopping families from submitting individual testimony about the standard of care received by their loved ones during the pandemic.
Instead of the usual “pen portraits” heard in the inquiry, families will submit their evidence to a private research company as part of a parallel Listening Project that will analyse the responses and share the findings with the Inquiry chair, Baroness Heather Hallett.
However, Pete Weatherby KC, representing Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice warned that the listening exercise risked not hearing the voices of families who lost loved ones in the pandemic.
He added that families had experienced “substantial frustration” amid delays in getting the inquiry formally started, and there are now concerns about how the inquiry team has been engaging with them.
“The listening exercise proposal does not listen to and consider carefully the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss as a result of the pandemic,” Mr Weatherby told the Inquiry in his submission during the first preliminary hearing in London.
“The listening exercise outsources examination of the experiences and the evidence of the bereaved and of their loss and it places them in a parallel framework, and it does, with respect, marginalise the bereaved and their voices,” he added.
However, Baroness Hallett rejected the suggestion that experiences would be “marginalised”, warning Mr Weatherby that she didn’t want to hear the expression in the inquiry again.
She added: “There is absolutely no question that the bereaved will be marginalised.
“The listening exercise, far from marginalising the bereaved, is to extend the number of people who suffered and the number of bereaved who have suffered to many, many thousands more than we could do in the ordinary, classic way of a formal hearing.”
Baroness Hallett said some people will be given core participant status, which gives them the right to the disclosure of documentation, the right to be represented and make legal submissions, suggest questions and receive advance notice of the inquiry’s report.
“The fact that someone contributes to the listening exercise will not prevent them from giving evidence at the public hearings of the inquiry if they have relevant evidence to give,” Baroness Hallett said.
“I have taken no decisions as yet on the witnesses to be called so no one has been barred from giving evidence.”
Mr Weatherby also raised concerns about which research company would be selected to oversee the listening exercise amid reports the firm would be chosen from a government-approved list that could have also been involved in government Covid messaging during the pandemic.
The inquiry was told that 28 individuals and organisations have been granted core participant status for the first module of the inquiry.
These include groups representing the bereaved in each of the UK nations, the NHS, the UK Health Security Agency, the Treasury, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Home Office, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Local Government Association and National Police Chiefs Council.
The inquiry is expected to last at least a year, with the first evidence sessions starting in spring 2023.
Tuesday’s hearing is largely procedural although bereaved families are expected to make a statement later on.