Covid inquiry will investigate lockdown’s impact on mental health and children

Bereaved relatives welcome PM's pledge for pandemic inquiry chair

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Baroness Hallett, a former judge and chair of the inquiry, wrote to Boris Johnson today to ask for the scope of the investigation to be widened. She said the 20,000 responses given in a consultation period had the “unequal impacts” of the pandemic as a running theme among submissions.

The inquiry had been announced at the end of last year, to look into the Government’s response to the pandemic, “ensuring that we learn the right lessons for the future”.

It came after the Government faced criticism over key decisions made during the pandemic, which may have affected patient outcomes – including the decision to discharge potentially asymptomatic carriers of the virus from hospitals into care homes during the first wave.

The inquiry has the full powers afforded by the law, including the requisitioning of relevant documents and interviewing stakeholders under oath.

In February, announcing Baroness Hallett’s appointment, the Prime Minister said she “shares my determination that the inquiry examines in a forensic and thoroughgoing way the Government’s response to the pandemic”.

In a letter to Mr Johnson today, she wrote: “The consultation revealed areas where the Terms of Reference could be improved.

“I have listened to compelling arguments to focus on children and young people, the mental health and wellbeing of the UK population and collaboration between regional, devolved and national Government, and the voluntary and community sector.

“I am therefore asking you to expand the Terms of Reference to include these issues.”

She added: “This important recommendation will ensure the Inquiry is inclusive in its approach.”

It now falls to Mr Johnson to approve the expansion of the scope of the inquiry, however, this is widely anticipated to be a rubber-stamping exercise.

The draft terms of reference for the inquiry, developed by the Prime Minister alongside Baroness Hallett and devolved Governments, already gives it scope to investigate how UK Governments and the health service reacted to COVID-19.

This includes investigating Governments’ preparedness and resilience, how decisions were made and implemented, and the use of data and evidence in those decisions.

It will also look at how prepared the health service was, the management of the pandemic in hospitals and care homes, as well as PPE procurement – among other health factors.

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The inquiry will also look at the implications of the economic measures the Government implemented to sustain the economy through successive lockdowns.

However, those terms of reference had, until today, failed to include anything on the mental health impacts of successive lockdowns as well as the impact on children, after spending months out of school.

The expansion of the inquiry, expected to become the largest in the UK, comes as the Metropolitan Police confirmed a further 50 fines had been issued due to breaches of COVID-19 regulations in and around Downing Street.

With the inquiry due to begin public hearings in 2023, the issue of the pandemic is not something that is likely to go away for Mr Johnson’s administration any time soon.

Tweeting ahead of the announcement, Dominic Cummings, who has spent much of his time outside of Government attacking the Prime Minister for his alleged breaches, said the inquiry would make Mr Johnson’s life “nightmarish”.

He added that he had received “lots of texts today like, ‘I can’t WAIT for the inquiry, I took lots of notes’”.

Baroness Hallett retired from the Court of Appeal in 2019. She has previously headed up other high-profile inquiries, such as those into the 7/7 bombings and the Iraq Fatalities Investigation.

She is currently also acting coroner in the inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess, who died after being exposed to the Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury – a post she will give up “in the new year”.

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