The chair of the UK Covid-19 public inquiry has urged the prime minister to significantly widen its scope to better examine the pandemic’s unequal impact on ethnic minority people, children and the nation’s mental health.
Barbara Hallett asked Boris Johnson to beef up the inquiry after receiving over 20,000 responses to a public consultation on the government’s draft terms of reference, which many civic groups complained were too narrow. If the PM ratifies the redrawn terms, it would considerably extend a statutory inquiry which some experts predict is on course to be the largest in modern British history.
The government’s draft terms already included 26 topics, including preparedness, lockdowns, testing, borders, infection control in hospitals and care homes, PPE, vaccines, furlough and sick pay. The inquiry has appointed 12 QCs to lead a mammoth effort that involves combing through potentially several million documents.
Lady Hallett acted after campaigners had complained the inquiry was set to be “bizarrely silent” on the impact on the population’s mental health, and former children’s commissioners had warned that the draft terms’ single-line reference to “restrictions on attendance at places of education” would “brush the burden shouldered by children under the carpet”.
Black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders had warned the planned inquiry failed to sufficiently account for inequalities “as a result of systematic racism throughout the pandemic”.
Downing Street’s draft terms said it would “consider any disparities evident in the impact of the pandemic and the state’s response, including those relating to protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 and equality categories under the Northern Ireland Act 1998”.
But campaigners wanted specific reference to minority groups and assessment of human rights impacts.
Last week, the leaders of the Race Equality Foundation and the Caribbean & African Health Network among other ethnic minority groups called for the inquiry to consider “the experience of racism that increased the risks faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic communities during the pandemic as a specific programme of work”.
Bangladeshi men were more than three times as likely to die with Covid than white British men while Pakistani women were more than twice as vulnerable as their white British counterparts, according to ONS data.
Hallet said she wants consideration of the unequal impact of the pandemic to run through all sections of the inquiry with possible focuses on ethnicity, religion, disability, the elderly, children in care and people who live in poverty.
Other topics the chair wants to see added are: the role of primary care, including the NHS 111 hotline, which many people used for advice on how to respond to Covid; the impact on places of worship; support for victims of domestic abuse; and access to bereavement support. Studies of people bereaved during Covid found that difficulties accessing bereavement support from general practitioners and bereavement services were common.
After months of criticism that the government was too slow to initiate the inquiry, Johnson promised to start the inquiry this spring, which is still technically possible. Once he agrees the terms, the inquiry will be formally established and can start gathering evidence and witness statements even if the first cross-examinations won’t happen before 2023. Hallett has already told government departments to protect evidence from destruction.
Hallett is a former appeal court judge who was recently coroner for the inquests of the 56 people who died in the 7 July 2005 London bombings.
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