Covid-19 means public inquiry guidance is more important than ever

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman

Over the last few months thousands of families have suffered as the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been affected by the virus and its tragic consequences.

While our NHS and public services have managed superbly under extreme pressure, it is inevitable that some mistakes will have been made. It is important that where this has happened lessons are learned by the Government.

It is part of my role as the Ombudsman for UK Government departments and agencies, as well as the NHS in England, to support that process and Parliament’s scrutiny of it.

Public inquiry into handling of Covid-19

It is against this backdrop that public inquiries have become a hot topic over the last few weeks. It is welcome news that the Prime Minister finally committed to an independent inquiry into the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic last week. In May, I wrote to the Government calling for this.

Covid-19 complaints

I anticipate we will receive complaints about the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. These may include concerns  about the medical treatment people and their loved ones have received, problems accessing essential benefit payments, or individuals who were trapped overseas at the start of the crisis and didn’t get the support they expected.

Some of these are issues that could be looked at now without impacting on the essential work our NHS and other services are doing to combat the virus. This would be an opportunity for an inquiry to explore new ways to engage with the public and hear their stories before rolling out the most effective methods later in its work.

Ministry of Justice fails to properly communicate over local inquiry

It is possible that one reason the Government is struggling to get its thinking off the ground is the inconsistency of its own guidance in this area. This is an issue I have encountered before, most recently in a case I highlighted to the Government last week.

In this case, the Ministry of Justice failed to communicate properly with a grieving mother about the possibility of a local independent inquiry into the disposal of babies’ ashes in Hull. This happened not only to the family that came to my Office, but to others who have lost their children in the area.

Need for public inquiries guidance

In its response to the investigation the MoJ suggested that many people consider the world of inquiries confusing.

I agree. It is fundamentally unclear on when the Government will approve a statutory inquiry, an independently chaired review or some other method of looking at why mistakes have been made and how they can be prevented from happening again.

Adding insult to injury

Those who campaign for inquiries and reviews will often have suffered unbearable losses as in the case I have highlighted. These campaigns will often involve families who are still grieving and battling to understand what has happened to their loved ones. 

Their pain should not be compounded by a shadowy process that is unclear even to Government departments, let alone vulnerable members of the public. The Government is apparently already undertaking work to clarify its guidance on inquiries, and I have urged it to publish this and make it accessible for the general public.

Clear, coherent guidance would be a significant step in the right direction to empowering citizens when they want to campaign for a public inquiry.