In the wake of the news there will be a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Spring 2022, Gerard Stilliard – head of personal injury strategy at Thompsons Solicitors – explains what a public inquiry is, and why the decision is being criticised.

What is a public inquiry?

A public inquiry is set up, usually by government ministers under the Inquiries Act 2005, to investigate specific or controversial events.

While the inquiry cannot blame a certain person or group, it will aim to understand what happened, why it happened, and how it can be avoided in the future.

How long do they take?

Public inquiries often run for several years, with the length of time depending on the complexity of the issues being investigated as well as the number of witnesses and documents involved.

Gerard Stilliard, our head of personal injury strategy
Gerard Stilliard, our head of personal injury strategy

Additional delays can be caused if the person chairing the inquiry is replaced, or if the police are running a criminal investigation parallel to the inquiry.

How common are public inquiries?

Despite their size and scope, public inquiries are called regularly - at the end of 2017 there were nine open inquiries. Many high-profile public inquiries are still ongoing, including those relating to the Manchester Arena bombings, Grenfell fire disaster and undercover policing – all of which we are involved with.

Aren’t public inquiries the same as an inquest?

An inquest is a specific type of inquiry held by a coroner when someone has died in violent or unnatural circumstances, if the cause of death is unknown, if the person has died when detained by the state or if a coroner considers that there is some other reason why the death should be investigated.

As the scope of an inquest tends to be narrower than that of a public inquiry, they tend to be much shorter, usually lasting a matter of days or a few weeks.

Why are people criticising the Spring 2022 start date of this particular inquiry?

A number of opposition MPs, campaign groups and people who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19 have raised concerns about the start date. They’ve argued that there is little reason to wait another year, and are also concerned that this only signals the start of the ‘process’ – meaning that the hearing may not begin until months later, after a significant period of evidence gathering.

The government’s counter argument is that it wants to ride out any potential ‘third wave’ of the virus this winter before distracting senior medical and political figures.

But many in opposition fear this delay is little more than an attempt by the government to say it is addressing the issue while keeping one eye open on a touted 2023 general election, with the potential scale of the failures not fully analysed by the time the public go to the polling booths.