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Ministers will have a year to prepare before cross-examination at the UK’s Covid-19 public inquiry, its chair Heather Hallett announced, as she opened what is set to be one of the broadest statutory investigations in the nation’s history.

The first cross-examinations of the government response to the pandemic including decisions on lockdowns, maintaining public confidence and handling of scientific advice, will begin in summer 2023, two and a half years after the arrival of the virus which has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the UK.

Hearings on the UK’s preparedness for a coronavirus pandemic will start in late spring 2023 as Lady Hallett said she wants to move as “speedily as possible so lessons are learned before another pandemic strikes”.

Boris Johnson had been repeatedly criticised by campaigners for the bereaved and Labour for delaying the launch of the inquiry. Hallett said it will scrutinise the “performance and effectiveness” of central government decision-making and its messaging – topics which are likely to expose current and former ministers.

The inquiry has powers to compel the production of evidence and appearances of witnesses.

Johnson’s official spokesman said the PM plans to cooperate with the inquiry. “It was the prime minister who established the inquiry and signed off on the terms of reference,” he said.

To make the “demanding” terms of reference more digestible, Hallett will break the inquiry into modules, with teams investigating and commissioning research on different issues. Hearings will run sequentially, suggesting proceedings could take a number of years.

At least eight other modules are likely to follow, but won’t be announced until next year. These include: vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment; the care sector; government procurement and personal protective equipment; testing and tracing; government business and financial responses; health inequalities and the impact of Covid-19; education, children and young persons; and the impact of Covid-19 on public services and other sectors.

Hallett, a retired court of appeal judge and a crossbench peer, said people and organisations would have to apply to be core participants for each module.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign, said: “Today was an emotional day for those of us who have lost loved ones and it meant a lot to hear Baroness Hallett recognise the “devastating nature of bereavement” and the pain we have been through. Hopefully this will be reflected by not making bereaved families go through the stressful and draining process of applying to be core participants in every single module.”

Hallett also announced the public will be able to take part through a “listening exercise” due to begin later this year which will gather the experiences of people most affected and “from those whose voices are not always heard”.

The responses will be analysed to highlight key themes, but individual accounts will not be investigated to prevent an already sprawling investigation from getting out of control. She said she will “need to be ruthless” and “it will be impossible to call every witness”, adding that the inquiry must “focus on the key issues”.

But she stressed that inequalities “will be at the forefront” of the investigation.

“Those who have suffered the most want to know if anything could have been done to prevent or reduce their suffering and that is why this inquiry has been established,” she said.

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Hearings will take place in different parts of the UK, including in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Hallett said her aim was to be “thorough and efficient, rigorous and fair”. When it comes to gathering evidence she would speak out against “people or organisations who stand in the way”.

Lawyers have already asked the government for assurances it will not block the release of key information amid fears that doing so could expose it to claims for damages from families who lost loved ones.

Elkan Abrahamson, head of major inquests and inquiries at Broudie Jackson Canter, who represents bereaved families, said: “It is of fundamental importance that we have access to all relevant documents and that the government offers full disclosure to the inquiry. The bereaved would regard anything less than full disclosure as a coverup.”

Public inquiry into UK Covid-19 response opens

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