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Legal advice on failures to protect people from infection and prevent the spread of Coronavirus

The devastatingly large numbers of lives lost in the UK to Covid-19 have made it almost inevitable that a Public Inquiry will eventually be held into how the coronavirus pandemic was handled by the Government and other relevant organisations.

Given the main purpose of a Public Inquiry is to learn lessons which can bring about changes to prevent major incidents and large-scale loss of life happening again, it is unimaginable to think such a hearing will not eventually take place.

In reality, such a process is likely to be a significant time away from happening, given that as yet we are unsure as to whether we will see the pandemic return with the same devastating impact we experienced between March and June of 2020.

However, when the appropriate time comes, a Public Inquiry provides the established process to fully examine how the UK Government responded to the threat of the virus coming to the UK, and then once it was here how it and others acted to protect the public.

The terms of such an inquiry, which will set out exactly what the process will examine and the facts it will seek to establish, will be much debated before finally set in stone.

However, they are almost certain to cover how prepared the UK Government was to react to a pandemic like Coronavirus, how ready it was to be able to protect people, how quickly and appropriately it responded and whether any failings led to more people catching the virus and suffering than should have.

We believe the following areas will be of significance to be examined in a Covid-19 Public Inquiry;

Care and Residential Homes

By mid-June 2020 official figures revealed more than 16,000 people had died from Covid-19 in UK care homes – almost a third of all fatalities at that time. Serious concerns have been raised that between March 17 and April 15, Government policy was to urgently discharge all hospital inpatients who were considered medically well enough back into care homes, without making it mandatory for them to be tested for Covid-19. Issues with supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, and testing of staff for Covid-19, have also been widely raised across the care sector.

Prisons, Immigration and Mental Health Centres

Closed communities including prisons, immigration detention centres and mental health institutions were at high risk from the offset. In particular, many concerns over lack of protection for prison staff and prisoners across England and Wales have been raised. By June 17, cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in 105 out of 117 prisons. Some 971 prison staff and 502 inmates had tested positive and 23 inmates had died. The Government has faced criticism for leaving many of the 80,000 remaining prisoners in overcrowded, unfit conditions despite plans to release risk-assessed prisoners under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme.

Hospital staff and Personal Protective Equipment

The shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for doctors and nurses working on the NHS frontline throughout the Coronavirus outbreak has seen the Government heavily criticised, with organisations representing health workers saying they have failed to meet World Health Organisation guidelines. Many NHS staff groups and families have claimed inadequate PPE played a key role in exposing them to the virus – questions will surely be asked around the Government’s procurement, stockpiling and distribution of PPE where by June 8 2020, around 300 UK health workers had died of Covid-19.

Oil and Gas Industries

Recognised as ‘essential services’ by the Government as the country went into lockdown and staff identified as ‘key workers’, oil and gas industries continued to operate throughout the outbreak. Typically with around 100 people on board, people live and work in close proximity so timely and effective control measures were vital to effectively reduce transmission of infection. Operators have been responsible for ensuring effective respiratory and hand hygiene on site, self-isolating those with symptoms, reducing close contact and the cleaning and decontamination of rooms, amongst other requirements around transporting workers to and from sites.

Frequently Asked Questions

What other areas could be scrutinised by a Public Inquiry?

Given this has been a worldwide pandemic, the response of the UK Government and its approach in comparison to other countries is perhaps one area that will be examined.

Due to England suffering a higher death total than other countries, this has certainly been an area which has been heavily focussed upon in the media, as comparisons have been made with other countries and their approaches to lockdowns and quarantines on foreign visitors.

Many have also called for an inquiry into why there is a higher death rate for people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Obvious areas such as the initial response to the Covid-19 virus, the strategy and guidance followed, the provision of testing and how quickly that was increased and where it was implemented, the timing of the lockdown and its subsequent relaxation, and the economic response by the Government are also likely to be covered.
Is it possible to launch a legal case now?

At this very early stage it would be difficult, but it is certainly not too early to seek some initial advice from experts in civil legal proceedings and solicitors who represent people relating to wide-reaching cases such as this, and who have experience of representing at Public Inquiries.

At Hudgell Solicitors, our civil liberties and public inquiry solicitors are already advising many people who have contacted us because they or their loved ones contracted coronavirus and they feel that was as a result of the Government or other organisations failing to properly protect them.

We are certainly interested to hear from people who feel they were let down in care or residential homes, working with hospitals, on oil rigs or if you are a relative of somebody who got the virus whist in prison.

Our legal team are following all developments related to Covid-19 investigations closely and we will be able to advise as the situation develops.
Who will be able to take part in a Public Inquiry?

In large scale inquiries, as one focussed on Covid-19 would clearly be, the appointed chair (often a serving or retired judge) will designate ‘core participants’ and witnesses.

A witness simply provides evidence to the inquiry through statements, documents or being asked to give oral evidence during a public hearing.

Core Participants have a larger role as they have rights to receive disclosure of documentation, be represented by lawyers and make legal submissions, suggest questions and receive advance notice of the inquiry’s report.

Our lawyers at Hudgell Solicitors have represented many Core Participants at Pubic Inquiries.

They can be individuals, organisations or institutions that have specific interest in the work of the inquiry.

Core Participants have or may have played a significant role in relation to the matters to which the inquiry relates, has a significant interest in an important aspect of the inquiry or may be subject to explicit or significant criticism during the inquiry proceedings.

Crucially, a Public Inquiry has the legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence – including those who perhaps would not wish to have their actions examined and questioned in the glare of public scrutiny.
How long will a Covid-19 Public Inquiry take?

We have to be realistic and accept that a Public Inquiry is likely to take years to enable all Covid-19 related investigations to be completed.

However, at Hudgell Solicitors we believe this is a process which must be committed to and fully followed to ensure recommendations and changes are made as a result of its findings which can help ensure the country is best prepared as possible to cope with any future pandemic like this one which we have all collectively been through.

Comment from Vicky Richardson

Our team has been advising workers transported to an oil rig site where there were already a significant number of Covid-19 cases on the rig. Allegations have been made of a lack of on-site training and briefings, failure to properly isolate or quarantine those with symptoms, a lack of testing and deep-cleaning and staff returning to mainland without appropriate measures being put in place.

We feel that in many scenarios like this, as more information emerges, more serious questions will need to be asked about the protection provided from this killer disease.

Find out more about our experience in Public Inquiry representation here

 

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