Covid inquiry asked to delay first hearing for a month due to redaction workload

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A request for a “modest” delay of around a month to the start of the first public hearing in the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has been made.

A preliminary hearing on Tuesday heard how the “process of review and disclosure” on hundreds of pages of UK Government submissions had “considerably” slowed down preparation for the first public session.

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 in decision-making roles during the pandemic, from policy documents and emails.

Those changes then have to be reviewed by the departments impacted, he said.

He said: “As I cannot guarantee that, as was provisionally hoped to be the case, that the core participants will receive almost all the disclosure to which they are entitled by mid-March, I must invite you to consider putting back the provisional start date of May to early June.

“In the general scheme of your inquiry, this is a fairly modest adjournment application.

“But it will allow, if you grant it, a proper opportunity for the core participants to get on top of the materials and, as a necessary part of that process, time to get the documents to them.”

He said any decision to push back the start of module one would have a knock-on impact on the start date for later modules but “not necessarily on the overall length of your inquiry”.

UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Chairwoman Baroness Hallett has been asked to consider a delay to the first public hearing on the inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

He expressed concern that there remained a “considerable distance to go” when it came to evidence gathering by inquiry officials, and called for changes in the way information was being handled.

“We agree there is … no alternative to that (delay),” Mr Weatherby told Baroness Hallett.

“The reality (is) we have a total of 719 exhibits and documents disclosed and precisely three witness statements relating to module one.

“The evidence-gathering stage of module one appears to be quite far from completion and the disclosure … is very much in the foothills.”

The “significant changes” to the process proposed by Mr Weatherby included giving bereaved families and other “core participants” in the inquiry immediate access to the evidence submitted.

Hillsborough Inquest
Pete Weatherby KC, pictured at the Hillsborough inquest, is representing families bereaved by Covid (Joe Giddens/PA)

Mr Weatherby also took issue with the way redactions were being handled, given it is slowing down the process of families being permitted to review the UK Government’s submissions.

“It is apparent that this issue, this redaction of the names of junior staff, is taking up a disproportionate and substantial amount of time of his (Hugo Keith KC) team and the knock-on effect is it is seriously impeding the disclosure of other material to core participants,” he said.

He called on the inquiry’s legal team to leave redactions until closer to the time of publication, allowing the information to be shared with “core participants” sooner.

A veteran of public inquiries, having represented families at the Hillsborough, Grenfell and Manchester bombing probes, he said: “I’m unaware of any other inquiry where the approach taken here has been adopted.

“I stand to be corrected on that but I’m not aware of this redaction of junior staff’s names having occurred in other processes which I’ve worked within.”

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