UK may ‘not have been well prepared at all’ for pandemic, Covid inquiry hears

Bereaved relatives held pictures of loved ones lost during the pandemic outside the inquiry (Belinda Jiao/PA)
Bereaved relatives held pictures of loved ones lost during the pandemic outside the inquiry (Belinda Jiao/PA)

The UK may not have been “very well prepared at all” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the official inquiry’s lead lawyer has said as public hearings began.

Lead counsel Hugo Keith KC questioned on Tuesday whether the nation was equipped to offer substantial protection to the public as leaders had promised.

Baroness Heather Hallett, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry’s chairwoman, vowed that those who suffered in the pandemic will “always be at the heart of the inquiry” as she launched public hearings.

The retired Court of Appeal judge welcomed the “dignified vigil” held by bereaved relatives outside the building as she vowed to undertake the thorough investigation they deserve.

She said she intends to answer three key questions: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic, was the response appropriate, and can lessons be learned for the future?

In his opening statement, Mr Keith said that near the start of the pandemic in March 2020 the Department of Health and Social Care, along with the three devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, published a Covid-19 action plan “setting out how they planned to tackle the coronavirus outbreak”.

“The plan stated that the United Kingdom was well prepared to respond in a way that offered substantial protection to the public. Whether that was actually the case will be examined in module one.

“Even at this stage before hearing the evidence it is apparent that we might not have been very well prepared at all.”

Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group lined up outside holding pictures of loved ones as they expressed frustration at feeling “excluded from sharing key evidence”.

Lady Hallett said she had set out an “ambitious” timetable for the inquiry, adding: “To conduct the kind of thorough investigation the people of the United Kingdom deserve takes time and a great deal of preparation.

“If I am to achieve my aim of making timely recommendations that may save lives and reduce suffering in the future, I had no choice.

“I know that there are those who feel the inquiry has not sufficiently recognised their loss or listened to them in the way they feel appropriate, but I hope they will better understand as the inquiry progresses the very difficult balance I have had to strike.

“I hope they will understand when they see the results of the work we are doing that I am listening to them. Their loss will be recognised.”

The inquiry played a 17-minute video showing people describing the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on themselves and their loved ones, including those who had died alone.

One woman cried as she told how her father had died but then, just a few days later, her sister also died.

She said she suffered guilt over the way they had died. Another woman said she had “lost everything”, while others described suffering anxiety.

People also told how they had not hugged each other at family funerals because they were sticking to Covid social distancing rules laid down by the Government.

The hearing also heard that people could not be buried in outfits chosen by families because body bags had to remain sealed.

Split into six areas, the inquiry will first look at whether the UK was adequately prepared for the pandemic.

Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.

A separate Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry chaired by Lord Brailsford is looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland.