Covid inquiry to probe availability and use of data during pandemic

The contact-tracing system and the use of information will be key areas of focus for the long-awaited review of the UK’s response to coronavirus

Credit: Jernej Furman/CC BY 2.0    Image has been cropped

The draft terms of reference for the long-awaited public inquiry into the UK’s response to Covid-19 have been published, with the use of data and the contact-tracing system among the key areas to be examined.

Chaired by Baroness Hallett, the investigation will look at the country’s preparedness for the pandemic, as well as the public health response, how the health and care sector responded, and the economic reaction.

The terms of reference set out that the aim of the enquiry is to “produce a factual narrative account” of impact of and response to the pandemic across all four countries of the UK. 

A number of areas to be examined are specified, including: “how decisions were made, communicated and implemented; intergovernmental decision-making; [and] the availability and use of data and evidence” throughout local, central, and devolved government institutions.

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The efficacy of the system of testing, tracing and isolation will also be put under the microscope. This is sure to include consideration of the NHS Covid-19 contact-tracing app.

The technology, on which at least £100m has been spent on its development and operations, was launched several months later than intended after the abandonment of the initial attempt to build a system that would government to collate data centrally. 

After being made publicly available in September 2020, the program – which is based on technology jointly developed by Apple and Google – has since been downloaded more than 30 million times and sent about 14 million exposure notifications. 

The inquiry is due to get underway later this spring. The Cabinet Office said the process will play a key role in “learning lessons” from dealing with coronavirus over the past two years, as well as “informing the government’s preparations for the future”.

It will also “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” such as bereaved families and examine any “disparities” in the impact of the pandemic.

The draft terms were written after discussion with the devolved administrations, and there will now be a further public consultation for four weeks, led by Baroness Hallett, to consider any changes to the terms before they are finalised.

Other key planks of the government response to be considered by the inquiry will include shielding, lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing.

Also to be examined are he decision to shut schools, the “closure and reopening of the hospitality, retail, sport and leisure sectors, and cultural institutions”, as well as how housing and homelessness issues were dealt with, the border, prison, justice, immigration and asylum systems, and the safeguarding of public funds.

The inquiry will look at the healthcare system’s initial capacity and resilience, as well as the management of the pandemic in hospitals, including infection prevention, the approach to palliative care, and the impact on staff and staffing levels.

Issues such as the procurement and distribution of PPE and ventilators, as well as the knock-on effect of the pandemic on the NHS, and the “provision for those experiencing long Covid” will also be looked at.

The economic response, such as the furlough scheme, support for businesses, additional funding for public services as well as benefits and sick pay will be interrogated.

Once the “factual narrative” has been set out, the second part of Baroness Hallett’s job will be to identify lessons to be learned for future pandemics, and to listen to the “experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss”.

She will also highlight where lessons may be applicable to other civil emergencies, identify disparities evident in the impact of coronavirus and the state’s response, and compare the UK’s response to how other countries fared.


Sam Trendall

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