The public inquiry into the Covid pandemic is being delayed by a row over secrecy after families of the bereaved complained over the redaction of civil servants’ names from documents.
Lawyers for the families of those who died during the pandemic say the blanking out of names of junior officials from Government documents and emails is slowing down the disclosure of vital material.
At the same time only three witness statements have so far been produced as part of the inquiry’s disclosure process.
The inquiry had been due to begin hearing evidence into the country’s preparedness for the pandemic and its response to the crisis in May this year.
But lawyers for the bereaved have called for a delay of several weeks to allow them to properly examine evidence when it is eventually submitted.
Hugo Keith KC, counsel for the inquiry, said “literally thousands of manual redactions” were having to be made to remove “irrelevant information”, including the names of junior officials who were not involved in decision-making during the pandemic, from policy documents and emails.
Those changes then have to be reviewed by the relevant departments, he said.
However, Pete Weatherby KC, counsel for the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group, called for the names of all officials involved in the Government’s Covid-19 response to be submitted to the inquiry, which would then decide if they were to be made public or removed, rather than being left to civil servants themselves to redact.
Mr Weatherby said: “This redaction of the names of junior staff, is taking up a disproportionate and substantial amount of time… the knock-on effect is it is seriously impeding the disclosure of other material to core participants.”
He said it should not be left to officials to redact names from documents, as it made it impossible for the families to object to certain individuals being removed.
“We are then being asked to play our part in the process by informing the inquiry if inappropriate redactions are being made, with the obvious difficulty that we do not know what we cannot see,” he said. “With respect to this issue of the redaction of names in particular, we say that’s the wrong way round and those seeking the redaction should be those who make the running on that matter.”
Mr Weatherby, who represented families at the Hillsborough, Grenfell and Manchester bombing inquiries, added: “I’m not aware of this redaction of junior staffs’ names having occurred in other processes which I’ve worked within.
“I think it was an issue that was raised in the recent Partygate review, but that was a different context, and as far as I’m aware was related to publication rather than disclosure to restricted persons with undertaking.”
Difficult to prepare for inquiry
Lawyers for the bereaved families, who include separate groups for those who died in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, say the small number of witness statements disclosed to them so far is also making it difficult for them to prepare for the inquiry.
They told the inquiry chair, the Rt Hon Baroness Heather Carol Hallett DBE, that a delay to the start of the public phase of the proceedings would need to be longer than the “modest” one suggested by Mr Keith.
Mr Weatherby said: “We agree there is… no alternative to that [delay]. But the reality, as we hear today, as Mr (Hugo) Keith has mentioned, is that we have a total of 719 exhibits and documents disclosed and precisely three witness statements relating to module one.”
“Recently, as Mr Keith has indicated, very significant evidence requests have gone out and, as I understand it, are continuing to go out to individuals rather than organisations. And therefore, the evidence-gathering stage of module one appears to be quite far from completion and the disclosure… is very much in the foothills.”
Baroness Hallett told the preliminary hearing that she was “sympathetic” to the requests for a delay to the start of the public inquiry.