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Last week Baroness Hallett, the Chair of the UK Covid-19 Public Inquiry made recommendations for revisions to the draft Terms of Reference for the Inquiry. Reading through the summary report that  was produced alongside the recommendations we are cautiously optimistic about how the Inquiry intends to approach the work before it.

Read our short summary of the good news, the areas we will be watching, and what happens next.

The good news

The unequal impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been put front and centre. As the Chair wrote in her letter to the Prime Minister,

“I am therefore recommending that the Terms of Reference be reframed to put possible inequalities at its forefront so that investigation into any unequal impacts of the pandemic runs through the whole Inquiry.”

In addition, the consultation summary report and Baroness Hallett’s letter:

  • Propose that the Terms of Reference are expanded ‘to broaden its focus beyond specifically protected characteristics’.[1] This was something we had called for in our submission to the consultation on the Terms of Reference, in particular that the Inquiry examine and understand the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on those with protected characteristics, and particularly how this intersects with socio-economic status.
  • Propose that the Inquiry considers the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on people experiencing multiple inequalities, as the Chair believes it will be greater. This is a really positive point which recognises that people often lead multiple identity, intersectional lives.
  • State the intention for the Inquiry to take a human rights based approach to its work, specifically they intend to adopt the ‘PANEL’ principles of Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Empowerment and Legality, as used in human rights investigations, to guide the Inquiry’s design.[2] While we would have liked to see this commitment written into the terms of reference, this is a hugely progressive step which we hold will ensure the rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. As we wrote in our submission to the consultation on the draft Terms of Reference,

“The Inquiry is a major undertaking, and it is examining a defining experience for all of us. It must be carried out to the highest standard possible. We strongly believe that taking a human rights-based approach gives the Inquiry the opportunity to honour the scale of the tragedy by understanding what happened and the human impact, travelling alongside those worst impacted and committing to do better in the future. We believe those who were worst impacted are owed this.”

There are very encouraging signs that the Inquiry is committed to ensuring it communicates regularly about any updates to its work.[3] In our submission we highlighted the importance of communicating clearly and transparently with the public in order to ensure accountability.

In the summary document the Inquiry has stated that they are committed to ensuring that they carry out the work in a way that is accessible to ‘disadvantaged and underrepresented groups.’[4] What’s really encouraging about this commitment is that the inquiry spell out that this was influenced by feedback they received about the accessibility of the draft Terms of Reference and the consultation materials. This was an issue that we raised in our own consultation response and it’s really heartening to read that the Inquiry is open to actively listening and working to improve.

The Inquiry has listened to people’s concerns about barriers to participation and have committed to tackle these, including by involving those affected by the pandemic in the design of the Inquiry’s listening exercise.  Barriers to participation was another issue we had raised in our own submission, and we are particularly happy to see that the Inquiry is going to take the advice of those with lived experience in thinking about how they can dismantle these barriers.

The proposed scope of the Inquiry is much wider, taking in many important groups who had their rights particularly impacted including unpaid carers, workers in precarious/low paid employment and victims of domestic abuse. In addition, while not necessarily framed at ‘human rights issues’ the inquiry is proposing it specifically cover issues that clearly have human rights implications, including mental health and those who were unable to conduct funerals in accordance with their cultural and religious traditions.

Areas to watch

This process will not be the full public inquiry that we called for in our submission. As noted in our submission,[5] this raises serious questions about how the Inquiry will be able to properly achieve accountability and will be something we will continue to monitor the Inquiry progresses in its work.

The Inquiry has not called for the Terms of Reference to make explicit reference to its this duty to work in line with and comply with the Human Rights Act. We believe this would have been an important step in order to help people understand the protections and safeguards that would be in place to ensure an effective investigation and so build the confidence of the public in the work of the Inquiry.

While the Inquiry has sought to expand its remit to include many areas that clearly have human rights implications, we believe the draft Terms of Reference would have been strengthened by a specific commitment to work in line with and comply with the international framework of rights which the UK has signed and ratified, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the rights protected within these.

While some progress has been made with regards participation, we would continue to encourage the Inquiry to think very carefully about what processes and safeguards may be necessary to ensure the Inquiry discharges its duty of care and strives to cause no further harm than disproportionately impacted people have already experienced.

What happens next?

The Chair of the Inquiry has written to the Prime Minister with the changes the Inquiry is recommending to the draft Terms of Reference. It is up to the Prime Minister to decide upon whether or not to agree these changes and what the final Terms of Reference will be.

We will continue to monitor the progress and work of the Inquiry. To keep up to date with our latest news, sign up to our mailing list.

Image by Joey Guidone.

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