No wonder the Covid Inquiry’s going to take years! Mind-boggling diagram lays bare Government’s ‘labyrinthine’ chain of command – which was tasked with preparing country for a pandemic before coronavirus struck

  • The probe’s first public hearing finally began yesterday in north west London 
  • Hugo Keith KC, the Inquiry’s lead lawyer, presented the graph to the chair 
  • READ MORE: ‘Little thought’ given to catastrophic consequences of lockdowns

An extraordinarily complicated flow chart presented to the Covid Inquiry lays bare the Government’s ‘labyrinthine’ chain of command that was tasked with protecting Brits from future pandemics.

The mind-boggling diagram, drawn up in August 2019, links together more than 100 organisations involved in preparing the country for any future infectious threats.

This includes the Cabinet Office, Department of Health and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) — a panel of leading experts who guided ministers through the pandemic.

Hugo Keith KC, chief lawyer of the long-awaited probe, which began yesterday, said: ‘This is a document, which the Inquiry team has prepared, which sets out the basic structures concerning EPPR [Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response]. 

But the flow chart, illustrated with a tangle of arrows and dotted lines, looked ‘much more like a bowl of spaghetti than a clear and coordinated framework for a cogent national response’, the lawyer for the Trades Union Congress told the inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett. 

As the probe finally kicked off yesterday, almost three-and-a-half years after the virus hit the UK, the Inquiry’s chief lawyer, displayed the mind-boggling graph to illustrate the UK’s structures in place for pre-pandemic preparedness. ‘This is a document’, Hugo Keith KC told the chair, ‘which the Inquiry team has prepared, which sets out the basic structures concerning EPPR [Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response]

Displaying the diagram to the Inquiry, Hugo Keith KC (pictured), said there was a ‘labyrinthine and confusing picture’ when it came to the various health bodies, committees and subcommittees 

As the first day of the evidential hearings began, more than 100 members of the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group also lined up outside, holding pictures of loved ones as they expressed frustration at feeling ‘excluded from sharing key evidence’ 

Sam Jacobs, representing the Trade Unions Congress, said: ‘Mr Keith showed us a helpful organigram.

‘It provides a visual and striking representation of a fragmented system which looks more like a bowl of spaghetti than a clear and coordinated framework for a cogent national response.’

Displaying the diagram to the Inquiry, Mr Keith stated there was a ‘labyrinthine and confusing picture’ when it came to the web of various health bodies, committees and subcommittees. 

Each of the four nations has its own public health body and there had been ‘significant reforms to the national and local systems for public health’ in England, he added. 

The flow chart documented the web of links between more than two dozen organisations including the Cabinet Office, the Department of Health and Social Care and the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – who advocated for harsher lockdowns

He said module one will look at ‘who provided oversight as to that state of preparedness of local responders, arm’s-length bodies, lead government departments, other government departments’.

He added: ‘We’ve seen my lady, in the written evidence, that relevant bodies, committees and subcommittees within Government were renamed or sometimes disbanded altogether only for other strikingly similar ones to be set up in the immediate aftermath.

‘One might conclude, looking at the schematic schedules, that there was a labyrinthine and confusing picture.

‘Was it really necessary?’

What topics will the inquiry cover?

There are currently six broad topics, called modules, that will be considered by the inquiry.

Module 1 will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.

Module 2 will examine decisions taken by Mr Johnson and his then team of ministers, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

The decisions taken by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be examined.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

This will include the controversial use of Do Not Attempt Resuscitation notices during the pandemic.

Module 4 meanwhile will assess Covid vaccines and therapeutics. 

It will consider and make recommendations on a range of issues relating to the development of Covid vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

Modules 5 and 6 will open later this year, investigating government procurement and the care sector.  

The inquiry has the power to announce further modules during its lifetime.

It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025.

Later, Mr Keith told the hearing that officials failed to consider the ‘potentially massive’ impact that lockdowns would have on the UK.

He said Britain ‘might not have been well prepared at all’ for the coronavirus pandemic.

And he suggested that those responsible for restricting public freedoms as the virus took hold had spent barely any time discussing the measures in advance.

He said ‘very little thought’ was given to how ‘complex and difficult and damaging’ the first national lockdown could be when it was introduced in March 2020.

This was despite the Government making preparations for a flu-like pandemic which would have affected public health in a different way.

Mr Keith said: ‘Extraordinary though it may seem, given that it’s a word that’s forever seared in the nation’s consciousness, there was very little debate pre-pandemic of whether a lockdown might prove to be necessary in the event of a runaway virus, let alone how a lockdown could be avoided.

‘Very little thought was given to how, if it proved to be necessary, how something as complex, difficult and damaging as a national lockdown could be put in place at all. Equally, there appears to have been a failure to think through the potentially massive impact on education and on the economy in trying to control a runaway virus in this way.’

Brexit also hampered No10’s pandemic preparations, Mr Keith also told the Inquiry.

He claimed that work managing a possible no-deal exit from the EU required an ‘enormous amount’ of logistical planning and might have drained critical resources and capacity needed to thwart potential infectious threats.

Lawyers for bereaved families also echoed concerns that the Government was preoccupied with Brexit in their opening statements to the first day of public hearings in the three-year official inquiry.

Brexiteer Tory MP Craig Mackinlay said it was ‘quite remarkable’ that anti-Brexit arguments should be aired ‘in the forum of the Covid Inquiry’.

More than 200,000 Brits have died with Covid since the crisis began. 

Bereaved families were promised they would remain ‘at the heart’ of the inquiry, which opened with a 17-minute film about patients who died alone. 

Lady Hallett, who led inquests into the 7/7 London bombings, vowed ‘their loss would be recognised’ and she would undertake the thorough investigation they deserve.

She said she had set out an ‘ambitious’ timetable for the inquiry, adding: ‘To conduct the kind of thorough investigation the people of the UK deserve takes time and a great deal of preparation.

‘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.’

While other inquiries have opened across the world, the UK’s will be the first to reach public hearings with evidence from witnesses. 

Many familiar faces thrust into the limelight during the pandemic are expected to make an appearance.

This could include Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, Sir Patrick Vallance and members of the Independent SAGE group of scientists.

Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne and Jeremy Hunt will also likely be among the politicians giving evidence to Hallett’s inquiry. 

Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief aide, is among other names expected to appear.

Claire Mitchell KC, the lawyer for Scottish bereaved families, told the inquiry yesterday that it would hear from former health secretary Matt Hancock as well as Sir Oliver Letwin, former minister for Government policy.

As many as 70 witnesses will contribute to the first module on pandemic preparedness, which has begun today. 

Wednesday’s session will hear from Dr Charlotte Hammer, an epidemiologist from Cambridge University and Professor Jimmy Whitworth, an infectious diseases expert from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The first module will run for six weeks, until 20 July. The probe is not expected to conclude until 2026.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? Who else will be involved? And how long will it take? EVERYTHING you need to know about the Covid inquiry

Why was the inquiry set up?

There has been much criticism of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic, including the fact the country seemed to lack a thorough plan for dealing with such a major event.

Other criticisms levelled at the Government include allowing elderly people to be discharged from hospitals into care homes without being tested, locking down too late in March 2020 and the failures of the multi-billion NHS test and trace.

Families of those who lost their loved ones to Covid campaigned for an independent inquiry into what happened.

Then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was right that lessons are learned, announcing in May 2021 that an inquiry would be held.

Will Boris Johnson be quizzed? If so, when?

It’s not clear exactly when, or if, the former Prime Minister will be quizzed. No full list of witnesses has been published yet.

But given he was in charge of the Government for almost the entirety of the pandemic, his insights will prove central to understanding several aspects of the nation’s response.

If called forward as a witness, he would be hauled in front of the committee to give evidence.

Who is in charge of the inquiry?

Baroness Heather Hallett is in the charge of the wide-reaching inquiry. And she’s no stranger to taking charge of high profile investigations.

The 72-year-old ex-Court of Appeal judge was entrusted by Mr Johnson with chairing the long-awaited public probe into the coronavirus crisis.

Her handling of the inquiry will be subject to ferocious scrutiny.

Until Baroness Hallett was asked to stand aside, she was acting as the coroner in the inquest of Dawn Sturgess, the 44-year-old British woman who died in July 2018 after coming into contact with the nerve agent Novichok.

She previously acted as the coroner for the inquests into the deaths of the 52 victims of the July 7, 2005 London bombings.

She also chaired the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, as well as the 2014 Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland.

Baroness Hallett, a married mother-of-two, was nominated for a life peerage in 2019 as part of Theresa May’s resignation honours.

How long will it take?

When he launched the terms of the inquiry in May 2021, Mr Johnson said he hoped it could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’.

But, realistically, it could take years.

It has no formal deadline but is due to hold hearings across the UK until at least 2025. 

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

The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war began in 2009 but the final, damning document wasn’t released until 2016.

Meanwhile, the Bloody Sunday inquiry took about a decade.

Should a similar timescale be repeated for the Covid inquiry, it would take the sting out of any criticism of any Tory Government failings.

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