Public hearings for the inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic are not set to begin until next year, raising the possibility that its findings won’t be published before the next election.
The revelation came in an open letter to the public from Baroness Hallett, the chair of the inquiry.
She said representatives of the inquiry will visit towns and cities across the UK over the next few weeks to meet with people affected by COVID-19.
Draft terms of reference published
The aim is to hear from people across the four nations of the UK and get their views on what the inquiry should investigate.
Baroness Hallett’s letter comes after the draft terms of reference for the inquiry were set out by the Cabinet Office on Thursday.
The inquiry will look into the response to the pandemic and its impact in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and will produce a factual narrative account of what happened.
It will also determine what lessons can be learned so the UK is prepared for future pandemics.
A consultation on the draft terms of reference is now open, with views being sought from the public, bereaved families, professional bodies and support groups.
It will end on 7 April.
Once the consultation has ended, Baroness Hallett will consider the public’s views before recommending any changes to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Inquiry chair vows to deliver recommendations ‘as soon as possible’
“I hope that people across the UK will participate in the online public consultation,” Baroness Hallett said in her letter.
“It is important that the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference properly reflect the public’s concerns.
“I will do everything in my power to deliver recommendations as soon as possible, to ensure that in any future pandemic, the suffering and hardship many of you have experienced is reduced or prevented.”
She said the inquiry will gather evidence throughout this year, with a view to commence public hearings in 2023.
‘We will never know how many lives could have been saved’
Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister Fleur Anderson welcomed the publication of the draft terms of reference, but said the inquiry was coming “far too late”.
“With Downing Street under police investigation for breaking COVID rules, the Conservatives must commit to implementing the inquiry’s recommendations in full when it reports back if the process is to retain any integrity and credibility,” she said.
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“The inquiry must now start as soon as possible so that no more time is wasted before we can learn lessons from the mistakes that were made.”
Becky Kummer, spokesperson for the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, said: “The inquiry is a one-off and historic opportunity for the terrible suffering and loss of the past two years to be learned from, to ensure these tragedies are not repeated in the future.
“The government finally publishing the draft terms of reference is a huge step forward, and we look forward to feeding into the consultation on them.
“Sadly, today’s announcement comes far too late. We will never know how many lives could have been saved had the government had a rapid review phase in summer 2020, as we called for at the time.”