Covid Public Inquiry: Deputy First Minister statement - 14 December 2021

Statement given by the Deputy First Minister John Swinney to the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh on Tuesday 14 December 2021.

Presiding Officer,

Today, I am announcing to Parliament the establishment of a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 to examine the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Scotland.

At the outset of this statement, I acknowledge that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, an enormous, damaging impact on our society. And most painful of all, COVID-19 has led to significant loss of life, resulting in heartache to all those who have lost loved ones.

We remember all those who have lost their lives and I express my sympathy to those who mourn their loss. I hope this inquiry will help to provide the answers for which these individuals search.

In this statement I will outline the scope of the inquiry and inform Parliament about the appointment of a chair to lead it.

To begin, I want to take a moment to recall why we are establishing a public inquiry.

The emergence of the Omicron variant is a stark reminder to us all that this pandemic continues to evolve and challenge us.

But that does not mean that we can delay our efforts to learn from the past. Indeed, it underlines the importance and urgency of learning lessons from what has gone before.

The purpose of this inquiry is two-fold. It is to provide scrutiny and answers to the questions that people have about how this pandemic has been handled in Scotland.

Equally, it is to learn lessons so that we can be as ready as possible to respond to future pandemics.

It is in that spirit that this public inquiry is being established, and it is how we expect it to continue: to provide answers and to help us make improvements for the future.

At this point, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has played a part in responding to the pandemic, whether on the front line in hospitals and care; in keeping shops and businesses going; at home finding new ways to work; in taking the vaccine and helping protect people around you. Responding to this pandemic has taken a lot from people across Scotland, and I want to thank every individual who has played their part.

In developing the terms of reference for this COVID-19 inquiry, it has been a key priority for the Scottish Government to listen to those who have been affected by the pandemic: to understand what they wish for the inquiry to focus on, while recognising the need to establish the inquiry quickly.

This includes first and foremost those who have endured the ultimate loss: bereaved families of partners, parents, children, sisters, brothers, as well as people who have lost friends and colleagues. Every life lost is one too many, and my condolences go to all those who have suffered losses and hardship.

It also includes wider groups of people who have been affected. Whether carers, people working in health and social care, councils, businesses, or community organisations. We have also taken care to listen to equality and human rights groups.

In the course of establishing this inquiry, we have taken over 400 written submissions and received more than 80 online ideas and nearly 200 comments through an online Dialogue Challenge. We have met with more than 70 stakeholders from the third sector, the private sector and the public sector.

The feedback we have received has been considered carefully by the Scottish Government and captured in an engagement analysis report which we are also publishing today.

The feedback from people affected by the pandemic has been key in developing the terms of reference that I am sharing with Parliament today. This includes, not least, strong public support for an inquiry with human rights at its heart. Matters that people have raised, have fed directly into the development of the scope of the inquiry. I want to thank everyone who has contributed their thoughts during this process. I know that for many this will not have been an easy thing to do.

The terms of reference for the inquiry set out 12 areas of investigation, each covering a strategic element of the handling of the pandemic.

These are as follows:

  1. pandemic planning and exercises carried out by the Scottish Government;
  2. the decision to lockdown and to apply other restrictions;
  3. the delivery of a system of testing, outbreak management and self-isolation;
  4. the design and delivery of a vaccination strategy;
  5. the supply, distribution and use of Personal Protective Equipment;
  6. the requirement for shielding and associated assistance programmes, provided or supported by public agencies;
  7. in care and nursing homes: the transfer of residents to or from homes, treatment and care of residents, restrictions on visiting, infection prevention and control, changes to inspections;
  8. the provision of healthcare services, including the management and support of staff;
  9. the delivery of end of life care and the use of DNACPR (do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation decisions);
  10. welfare assistance programmes, for example those relating to benefits or the provision of food, provided or supported by public agencies;
  11. the delivery of education and certification; and
  12. financial support and guidance given to businesses and the self-employed, including in relation to identification of keyworkers, by public agencies.

In investigating those 12 strategic elements, the terms of reference further ask the chair to consider the impacts of handling of the pandemic on the exercise of Convention rights and to create a full, factual record of the key strategic elements of the handling of the pandemic.

With the exception of the investigation of pandemic planning, the period covered by the inquiry will be from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2022.

The chair is asked to identify lessons and implications for the future and to provide recommendations, providing reports to Scottish Ministers as soon as practicable.

As I stand here, I am keenly aware of a fundamental challenge: of striking the right balance between, on the one hand, addressing the wide range of questions that so many people have. And on the other, making sure that this inquiry can be delivered at speed, so we can learn and benefit from lessons as early as possible.

To this effect, I have agreed with the chair that as they begin their work, they will reflect on the terms of reference and suggest adjustments, should they wish to. If Ministers then agree, any changes to the terms of reference, I will undertake to inform Parliament as soon as possible.

This includes adjustments to take into account the remit of the UK-wide public inquiry that the UK Government has undertaken to establish, as well as any issues arising in the ongoing pandemic which the inquiry judges to be important to investigate. We remain committed to working with the UK Government to develop the approach to the UK-wide inquiry and expect the chair of the Scottish public inquiry to coordinate with the chair of the UK-wide inquiry.

The full text of the terms of reference is available on the Scottish Government website as of now.

Over the past few months, Ministers have been in discussions with the Lord President of the Court of Session to find a suitable chair for the inquiry, in line with our commitment to have the inquiry led by a judge. I would like to express my thanks to the Lord President for his co-operation on this issue.

Today, I am pleased to announce to Parliament that the Honourable Lady Poole has agreed to chair the Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry.

Lady Poole is a sitting Senator of the College of Justice of Scotland and has also sat as a Judge in the Upper Tribunal of the United Kingdom.

From my own and the First Minister’s interactions with Lady Poole, I am left with no doubt that Lady Poole is highly qualified for the demanding task put in front of her. I believe she will bring pace and energy to the work of the inquiry, as well as a cool, calm head, and that she will approach experiences of the pandemic sensitively and sympathetically.

I am satisfied that Lady Poole possesses the leadership skills, integrity, and deep technical knowledge to undertake this inquiry.

Of crucial importance, I note in particular Lady Poole’s high degree of expertise in administrative law and human rights law, which is exactly in line with the expectations we have, that the inquiry should take a human rights-based approach – and I should say that Lady Poole has also made clear to the First Minister and to me her own conviction that human rights and equalities should be addressed as part of the inquiry and in the way it is run.

I am convinced that Lady Poole will approach the inquiry in such a manner as to do justice to those who have suffered through this pandemic and to make sure we learn the lessons we need to learn, so Scotland is prepared for the next pandemic.

No panel members will be appointed today. It will be for the chair to decide whether to appoint any assessors to provide expertise on particular subjects or any other assistance to the inquiry.

In the coming period, the chair of the inquiry will make necessary preparations on operational matters, including the appointment of the inquiry’s key staff.

Once set up, the inquiry will make announcements about its approach and progress as the chair sees fit.

I extend my thanks to Lady Poole for being prepared to take on this most important challenge on behalf of the people of Scotland.

We all need the inquiry to explore the handling of the pandemic and to identify the lessons we all need to learn.

I pledge that the Scottish Government will engage, as I know this Parliament and everyone in Scotland will, to support Lady Poole in this most important task that she now takes forward on behalf of us all.

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