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UK Covid-19 inquiry to dig into science advice and data issues

Official inquiry opens second investigation with scope to examine scientific advice and data handling

The UK Covid-19 inquiry has opened its second investigation into the decision-making of the UK and devolved governments during the pandemic, with scope to examine scientific advice and data handling.

The news came ahead of the start of preliminary hearings for the first part of the inquiry—module 1, to discuss procedural matters—on 20 September, with public hearings expected in the spring next year.

Module 2 will focus on early 2020 with preliminary hearings held from late autumn on decisions taken by prime minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet, as well as the devolved governments.

It will begin to hear from witnesses next summer, and will include advice given by the civil service, senior politicians, scientists and medical advisers, as well as cabinet committees.

Module 2’s scope includes the “initial understanding of, and response to, the nature and spread of Covid-19 in light of information received from the World Health Organization and other relevant international and national bodies”, as well as “advice from scientific, medical and other advisers and the response of other countries”.

It also includes “access to and use in decision-making of medical and scientific expertise, data collection and modelling relating to the spread of the virus” and public health communications, transparency of government messaging and the “use of behavioural management”.

Science and data on the measurement and understanding of transmission, infection, mutation, reinfection and death rates are all within scope, as are those on “modelling and dissemination of data between government departments and between the government, the NHS and the care sector”.

‘Resolute in my quest for the truth’

Baroness Heather Hallett, chair of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, said: “My team and I will establish what was understood about Covid-19 at the time, what information was available in each of the four UK nations, and how and why key decisions were made, especially early in the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, module 1 will look at the UK’s planning for a pandemic, including forecasting, resources, and the learning from past simulation exercises.

“It’s time for facts, not opinions—and I will be resolute in my quest for the truth,” said Hallett in July. “The Inquiry is already gathering evidence. We will start with the most pressing question—was the UK prepared for a pandemic?”

Later on, module 3 will look at the impact of Covid on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers, as well as the government’s and society’s responses to it.

Further modules will be announced next year on issues such as vaccines, therapeutics and antiviral treatment, testing and tracing, education, and the impact of the pandemic on inequalities.

Johnson accepted the terms of reference for the Covid-19 inquiry in June this year, meaning it has now been formally established under the Inquiries Act (2005).

The terms of reference promise that the inquiry will look at the availability and use of data, research and expert evidence in the UK’s public health response to the pandemic.

For example, the terms of reference include:

  • the government’s preparedness and resilience
  • the availability and use of data, research and expert evidence
  • the procurement and distribution of key equipment and supplies, including personal protective equipment and ventilators
  • the development, delivery and impact of therapeutics and vaccines.

The inquiry will also seek to identify lessons to be learned from the above, to inform preparations for future pandemics in the UK.