The Inquiry has published an update on its consultation with core participants regarding COVID-19.
The Inquiry wrote to Core Participants yesterday inviting their views on how hearings should proceed in response to the rapidly evolving situation of COVID-19.
The Inquiry continues to plan proactively to manage the impact of the growth in prevalence of COVID-19 and protect the safety of all those attending the hearings. The Inquiry has to date been following Public Health England (PHE) recommendations and has appropriate business continuity plans in place to ensure it can respond to events and continue its work. However, in light of the rapidly evolving situation with COVID-19, there are a number of factors the Inquiry needs to take into account in assessing its position, including the fact that hearings involve a daily gathering of around 100 people or more, and a number of attendees to the hearings have underlying health issues.
The Inquiry recognises that an integral part of its process is for core participants and their legal representatives to be able to participate fully in examining the evidence, including suggesting lines of questioning that should be pursued.
As a first step in managing the spread of infection, the Inquiry has already advised those who may need to self-isolate not to attend the Inquiry premises and to follow proceedings remotely. While it may be desirable to many core participants and other interested parties to be physically present at the hearings, it is not necessary in order for the Inquiry to proceed. For example, some legal representatives are already sending supplementary questions to Counsel to the Inquiry by email.
However, in ensuring the integrity of the Inquiry proceedings and taking account of the above factors, the Inquiry has sought views from legal representatives by close today on how satisfactory or otherwise, given the circumstances, the two following options would be. The Inquiry has also asked legal representatives to provide details of any practical considerations they identify relating to these two options:
- Video hearings - hearings at which witnesses are examined by Counsel to the Inquiry and give evidence to the Panel in the ordinary way at the venue but at which core participants and legal representatives participate remotely by watching proceedings online and submitting questions via email. Members of the public and the media would also be required to follow the proceedings remotely rather than attending in person. This option is dependent on core participants and their legal representatives having suitable access to the internet. The Inquiry also requires the support of all the technical staff (with whom the Inquiry is actively liaising on their business continuity plans).
- Suspend hearings - in order to maintain the integrity of the Inquiry proceedings, the Inquiry requires the participation of certain key parties including the Panel Members, Counsel to the Inquiry, witnesses, recognised legal representatives and supporting technical staff. Hearings (including any virtual hearings) may become unsustainable due to the practical considerations above or by the forced absence of these key parties due to self-isolation or related factors.
Dependent on how the situation evolves, the government may issue advice that requires hearings to be suspended. However, the Inquiry recognises it may need to take preemptive action ahead of any such advice if it considers, following consultation with core participants and our supporting technical staff, that either of the above options need to be implemented.
As the Chairman confirmed this morning, the Inquiry will consider the responses from legal representatives and plans to take a view following this consultation as to whether to continue with limited attendance hearings