A retired Court of Appeal judge and crossbench life peer has been announced as the chair of the public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic.
Baroness Heather Hallett, who previously acted as coroner at the inquests into the deaths of the victims of the 7/7 bombings, will lead the investigation due to begin next year, Boris Johnson announced on Wednesday.
He said she will bring “a wealth of experience to the role and I know shares my determination that the inquiry examines in a forensic and thoroughgoing way the Government’s response to the pandemic”.
Co-founder of the group Matt Fowler said: “Whilst this news is very welcome, unfortunately it comes far too late. We’ve been calling for an inquiry since the end of the first wave, and we will never know how many lives could have been saved had the Government had a rapid review phase in summer 2020.
“With the Omicron variant upon us, the inquiry really cannot come soon enough.
“This is a one-off, historic opportunity to learn lessons to protect lives across the country. We cannot afford to get it wrong and we look forward to working closely with Baroness Hallett to make it a success.”
Last month, Home Secretary Priti Patel upgraded the inquest to a public inquiry to better examine any possible Russian involvement, amid allegations she died as an indirect result of Kremlin-sponsored poisoning.
Baroness Hallett was due to chair that inquiry, but a new person will now be found.
From 2019, Baroness Hallett led the Iraq Fatalities Investigations, surrounding allegations of unlawful killing by British Forces.
And in 2014 she chaired the Hallett Review of the administrative scheme to deal with ‘on the runs’ in Northern Ireland, where individuals could inquire whether or not they were at risk of arrest if they returned to Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK.
The Covid-19 inquiry is set to begin in spring 2022 and the Government said will have “full powers, including the power to compel the production of documents and to summon witnesses to give evidence on oath”.
No 10 said Mr Johnson will now consult Baroness Hallett and ministers from the devolved administrations on the terms of reference for the inquiry and will publish a draft in the new year, with a consultation – including with bereaved families and other affected groups – before they are finalised.
In a written statement, Mr Johnson said: “The public inquiry into Covid-19 will play a key role in examining the UK’s pandemic response and ensuring that we learn the right lessons for the future. In doing so, it must ensure that those most affected by the pandemic – including those who have sadly lost loved ones – can play their proper role in the process.”
Baroness Hallett said she was “honoured” to have been selected, after a recommendation from the Lord Chief Justice.
She said: “The pandemic has affected us all, some much worse than others. I am acutely conscious of the suffering it has caused to so many.
“In the new year I shall be seeking views from those who have lost loved ones and all other affected groups about the inquiry’s terms of reference.
“I want to assure the British public that once the terms of reference are finalised, I shall do my utmost to ensure the inquiry answers as many questions as possible about the UK’s response to the pandemic so that we can all learn lessons for the future.”