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Covid inquiries for Wales and Northern Ireland could be too short

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Covid inquiries for Wales and Northern Ireland could be too short

During preliminary hearings on Wednesday, Tom Poole KC – counsel to the Wales part of the inquiry – said the current plan was to allocate three weeks to the public hearing on the Welsh Government’s response to Covid-19 in February next year.

The hearing focusing on decision-making in Northern Ireland is proposed to take place over three weeks in April 2024.

Speaking in the Welsh session of the hearing, Mr Poole told committee chair Baroness Hallett: “We propose that the Module 2B substantive hearings should commence on February 26 next year.

“It remains our plan that these hearings will last for three weeks. We note what is submitted on behalf of the core participants on whether three weeks is enough.

“Given that the bulk of the documents have not yet been received, and given your ladyship’s stated desire to have hearings that are relevant and not undermined by the passage of time, we are loath to suggest an extension of length given the impact that would have on the rest of the inquiry.”

Bethan Harris, representing members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, gave the first submission to the inquiry to be made in both English and Welsh.

She told the hearing: “The group is concerned that this may not allow for adequate scrutiny.

“There is no other inquiry for Wales, the first minister having, of course, refused a Wales-specific inquiry akin to the Scottish inquiry, in reliance on this inquiry.

“The concern is that the devolved Welsh Government will escape full scrutiny.”

Ruth Henke KC, for the Welsh Government, said there was “significant ground to cover in a relatively limited amount of time” during the Welsh part of the inquiry.

“The Welsh Government emphasises that sufficient time must be allocated to enable the inquiry to do justice to its important work and asks the inquiry to ensure that if extra days are needed, they are made available,” she said.

Concerns were also raised in a later hearing on Wednesday, which related to Module 2C – focusing on decision-making in Northern Ireland.

Clair Dobbin KC, lead counsel to that module, said: “The issue has been raised as to whether three weeks is enough for a hearing.

“The inquiry is of the view that having thought about the ground to be covered and considering that module one and two will have preceded us, and will lay some of that groundwork, that it is enough time, but in circumstances where we don’t yet have a witness list and haven’t sketched out our timetable, it would be premature to say that three weeks is not enough.”

But Brenda Campbell KC, representing Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said there were “unique issues” which merited six weeks for the hearings.

“We do really question whether the proposed 14 days or three weeks minus a bank holiday is sufficient,” she said.

“One just has to think of not only the unique geographical situation, the political dysfunction and instability before (the pandemic) – and what some might say during and since, the input from Westminster and Dublin, the unique health and social care framework – all of those calls for a greater amount of time to be allocated.

“In fact, at a conservative estimate, we would respectfully submit that a timetable in fact twice as long would easily be filled with important evidence to be scrutinised.”

Samuel Jacobs, representing the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), also raised concerns about the allocated time, describing it as “extraordinarily short”.

“It is presently the only hearing slated to be taking place in Northern Ireland and focused exclusively on the pandemic in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Of course, we do not yet have witness statements yet alone a clear idea on witnesses, but we can say that to us 14 days seems extraordinarily short.”

The lawyer added: “You may, my lady, wish to grasp the nettle now and extend the timetable, recognising that it is perhaps inevitable.”

But Baroness Hallett said: “I remain optimistic we can conduct a thorough and timely investigation.

She told the hearing: “I am determined that modules such as this focusing on the devolved nations’ administrations will not be in any way a sideshow.

“They are a vital part of the hearings as far as I am concerned and I will ensure that throughout the inquiry in these modules and, indeed, in other modules where we will be looking at matters that affect the devolved administrations and the devolved nations that we properly investigate all relevant matters.”

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