Covid Scotland: First details of Scotland's pandemic public inquiry announced

Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed a judge-led independent public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 in Scotland will be established by the end of the year.

The First Minister said the need to work with other UK governments on a broader inquiry should not delay the creation of a Scotland-focused investigation into how the pandemic was handled and the impact of government decisions on deaths in care homes, the economy and education.

She also pledged the government would ensure the inquiry had access to all government emails, WhatsApp messages, and other forms of communication by which pandemic decisions were taken.

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Asked if she would ensure bereaved families that “nothing would be off limits”, Ms Sturgeon said: “If you understand statutory public inquiries, then even if I wasn’t prepared to give that assurance, which for the avoidance of doubt I am, I wouldn’t have the ability – this will be a judge-led statutory public inquiry.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced details of Scotland's public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic.

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"We are somewhat farther ahead than any government in the UK right now, in not just committing to a public inquiry, but actually getting it into operation.

"People will judge the public inquiry as it progresses and it will entirely be down to the judge appointed to lead it on how it progresses, but I desperately want every appropriate lesson from what we've gone through to be learned, so that any future government in a similar situation has the benefit of that.

"Our commitment to this demonstrated by the speed at which we are moving ahead of others to establish a public inquiry should not be in any doubt.”

Establishing a public inquiry into the Covid pandemic was one of the SNP’s pledges for its first 100 days of government – a deadline that comes into force on Wednesday.

Announcing the inquiry, Ms Sturgeon said it would “look at all matters related to the handling of the pandemic that are within our devolved competence – this will include, of course, the situation in our care homes”.

But she stressed the Scottish Government would "liaise closely" with the UK Government and other devolved administrations on the likely terms of a UK-wide inquiry.

"It will be important to avoid duplication and overlap," Ms Sturgeon said.

"However, the need for co-operation with other governments is not in my view a reason to delay the establishment of our own inquiry.

"I do believe a full public inquiry has an extremely important role to play, both in scrutinising the decisions that we took and indeed continue to take in the course of the pandemic, but also, of course, in identifying and learning appropriate lessons for the future.

"I therefore believe it is important to establish that inquiry as soon as possible now, and the process we have begun today is an important step towards that."

The inquiry will take a “person-centred, human rights based approach”, she said, with draft aims and principles for the inquiry already published, “intended to become the basis for the formal terms of reference of the inquiry”.

It will focus on what the government labelled the “four harms” of the pandemic, namely the direct health impacts of Covid-19, including deaths and cases in care homes, other non-Covid-19 health impacts, societal impacts, and economic impacts.

Further, it will “investigate events causing public concern, for example the experience of Covid-19 in care homes”, and will “determine the explanations for decisions taken”, and the “causes of anything which may not have gone as expected” and seek to consider whether any different outcomes during the pandemic could have been reached and, if so, how they could have been achieved.

The inquiry will also have the power to make recommendations to the Scottish Government after its final report.

A consultation period has now been launched, running until the end of next month, to allow others to suggest areas the inquiry could investigate.

The First Minister also revealed the new Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain is in discussions with the Lord President Lord Carloway “about appointing a judge to lead the inquiry”.

The inquiry was welcomed by Scottish Conservative health spokeswoman Annie Wells, but she said it was a “disgrace” it had taken so long.

“It seems that the SNP will finally start listening to grieving families and respect the will of a Scottish Parliament vote last year, when the Scottish Conservatives won cross-party support for an urgent Scottish Covid inquiry,” she said.

“It’s a disgrace that they are only getting around to this now, when Nicola Sturgeon promised it would be a priority during the election campaign.

“This inquiry must uncover what went wrong throughout the pandemic, especially in our care homes. Major errors were made by the SNP Government that left our most vulnerable citizens unprotected.

“We will be pushing the government to ensure this inquiry gets the answers that families deserve, and not more of the same SNP spin and secrecy as they’ve had so far.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar also said the delay in the announcement of the inquiry showed it was “not a priority” for the government.

“They are dragging their feet, ignoring the pain of the grieving families and sacrifices of thousands of key workers,” he said.

“The SNP cannot hide behind Boris Johnson and claim that they have their hands tied by the absence of a four-nations inquiry. This is not good enough. The thousands of Scots who have been affected by the pandemic deserve justice and they deserve it now.

“The First Minister must end the dither and delay and act now so that light can be shone on the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic, lessons can be learned and justice can be done.”

Deputy First Minister and Covid recovery secretary John Swinney said the government had always been “committed to a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in Scotland”.

He said “The publication of this aims and principles paper, as one of our 100 days’ commitments, is an important step towards the establishment of that inquiry.

“We will continue to listen to those affected by Covid-19, including bereaved families, on what they wish the public inquiry to focus on. Their feedback will be fundamental in reviewing the suggested approach set out here, and setting the terms of reference for an independent Scottish inquiry.

“Discussions are also ongoing with the UK Government on the planned four-nations inquiry, to ensure all areas that need to be considered are covered in a way that gives confidence to bereaved families and others.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs in May that a four-nations inquiry was set to begin in spring 2022. However, the First Minister has called for it to start in 2021.

More than 8,000 people in Scotland have died after testing positive for Covid-19, with more than 10,000 death certificates mentioning the virus as a cause of death.

The public have the chance to provide feedback on the planned inquiry by September 30.

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