Covid inquiry: When it starts, what's at stake and how you can watch it

The investigation will include evidence sessions with witnesses including Boris Johnson and George Osborne

<span class="caas-xray-inline-tooltip"><span class="caas-xray-inline caas-xray-entity caas-xray-pill rapid-nonanchor-lt" data-entity-id="Boris_Johnson" data-ylk="cid:Boris_Johnson;pos:1;elmt:wiki;sec:pill-inline-entity;elm:pill-inline-text;itc:1;cat:Politician;" tabindex="0" aria-haspopup="dialog"><a href="" data-i13n="cid:Boris_Johnson;pos:1;elmt:wiki;sec:pill-inline-entity;elm:pill-inline-text;itc:1;cat:Politician;" tabindex="-1" data-ylk="slk:Boris Johnson;cid:Boris_Johnson;pos:1;elmt:wiki;sec:pill-inline-entity;elm:pill-inline-text;itc:1;cat:Politician;" class="link ">Boris Johnson</a></span></span>'s WhatsApp messages have been demanded as part of the inquiry. (PA)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The first public hearings in the COVID-19 inquiry begin on Tuesday, in a six-week process that will examine the government's preparedness and response to the pandemic.

The COVID inquiry is hearing evidence for its first investigation – known as Module 1 – examining how prepared the UK was for the pandemic.

The hearings will be open to the public to attend and available to watch on the inquiry’s YouTube channel, subject to a three-minute delay.

Read more: Transparency row between government and COVID inquiry widens

Last week, the government launched a legal fight over the inquiry’s demand to release former prime minister Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages, diaries and personal notebooks – it is unclear whether this will impact the start of the public hearings.

Presided over by former judge Heather Hallett, the investigation is due to see evidence sessions with witnesses expected to include Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and George Osborne.

"The inquiry will analyse our state of readiness for the pandemic and the response to it ... and to determine whether that level of loss about which we've just been reflecting was inevitable, or whether things could have been done better," said Hallett, opening the inquiry in 2022.

Baroness Heather Hallett 2021
Baroness Heather Hallett, pictured in 2021, is the chair of the COVID-19 inquiry. (PA)

The inquiry has been broken down into modules that look at specific aspects of the pandemic response, including resilience and preparedness, decision-making and political governance and the impact of the pandemic on healthcare.

The hearings will be livestreamed on the inquiry's YouTube channel.

What questions will be asked?

The hearings that begin on 13 June are linked to module 1 of the inquiry: resilience and preparedness, which opened on 21 July 2022. Its aim is to assess the extent to which the UK was ready for the pandemic.

When he announced the inquiry, Johnson said it would put the government “under the microscope” adding, “we should be mindful of the scale of that undertaking and the resources required to do it properly”.

Topics are expected to be wide-ranging and include everything from how vulnerable people were protected, public lockdowns, the use of track and trace, and how WhatsApp was used for communications about developing coronavirus policies.

Will we see Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages?

The unredacted WhatsApp messages have become the source of a legal battle between Rishi Sunak's government and the inquiry.

On 1 June the Cabinet Office said it was seeking a judicial review of Baroness Hallett’s order to release the documents, arguing that it should not have to hand over material which is “unambiguously irrelevant”.

It is highly unusual for a Government to take legal action against its own inquiry, with the move prompting swift criticism after days of public wrangling between the Cabinet Office and Lady Hallett’s probe.

Johnson has urged the Cabinet Office to hand over the messages, but concerns have been raised by the government about whether giving the messages to the inquiry will breach the privacy of those involved or mentioned by the messages.

How much will the inquiry cost?

The inquiry has already cost taxpayers an estimated $15m in direct costs related to the inquiry and a further $113m in indirect costs that include the costs of contracts related to the probe – such as legal support, IT, and document disclosure, according to analysis by government outsourcing monitor Tussell.

How long will the inquiry last?

The inquiry was announced by Johnson on 12 May 2021, and since then has had three modules in progress (resilience and preparedness, core UK decision-making and political governance, and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on healthcare systems in the four nations of the UK).

Each module has had preliminary hearings, with a public hearing for resilience and preparedness beginning on 13 June. That hearing is set to last for six weeks.

London UK. 30 May 2023 The national covid memorial wall  a public mural comprising thousands of red and pink hearts to commemorate the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic  in the UK. The Covid-19 Inquiry  will start on June 13  that  has been set up to examine the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and learn lessons for the future s chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge . Credit: amer ghazzal/Alamy Live News
The national COVID memorial wall in London – a public mural comprising thousands of red and pink hearts to commemorate the victims of the pandemic. (Alamy)

Further modules are set to be announced in the coming months, including on vaccines, personal protective equipment (PPE) and education, and the overall inquiry is reportedly expected to run for around seven years.

Labour MP and the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on pandemic response and recovery, Graham Stringer, told The Telegraph: “I think [the inquiry] has become irrelevant and very expensive.

“During the COVID period, I thought the government got it wrong and I wanted an inquiry. We now have a very expensive and very bloated inquiry.”

What have campaigners said?

While many campaigners and people who lost loved ones to coronavirus have welcomed the idea of a COVID inquiry, there have been mixed feelings about how it should be carried out and what it should investigate.

Some campaigners have urged the inquiry to look at the structural racism that saw people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds more likely to suffer worse outcomes from coronavirus.

Read more: As COVID inquiry begins, bereaved families call for greater transparency

In a letter to Hallett, the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice and the Runnymede Trust said: "COVID-19 is not just a health crisis; it’s also a social and economic crisis. The ability to cope, to protect and to shield oneself from the virus varies vastly for people from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds."

Other bereaved families told ITV they would be boycotting the "listening exercise" part of the process because the company employed to gather their stories, creative agency 23Red, was used by the government to help with pandemic communications.

Watch: Covid Inquiry chair opens preliminary hearing

The COVID Bereaved Families for Justice group said the inquiry will be a "farce" if those who lost loved ones are not able to give evidence.

Dr Saleyha Ahsan, whose father Ahsan-ul-Haq Chaudry died in December 2020 after he contracted coronavirus, was one of 20 people put forward by the campaign group to be considered as a witness.

Dr Ahsan, from Cambridge, worked on the front line during the pandemic and said she was “flabbergasted” to hear none of the COVID Bereaved witnesses put forward had been selected for the first module.

She said: “[Baroness Hallett] is not going to be able to humanise the absolutely staggering number of deaths, the wall of deaths, how is she going to pick out the crucial details from all of that, she’s going to need to make her suggestions for interventions that will hopefully stop this happening again to the same degree, it’s impossible.”