This report is an analysis of the responses submitted to the Scottish Government, from 24 August to 30 September 2021, on the approach of Scottish Ministers to establishing the public Inquiry into the handling of COVID-19 under the Inquiries Act 2005. The responses included those submitted by email, online via the ‘Dialogue Challenge’ and through online group discussions with a selection of key stakeholders.
The total number of responses was: 415 emails, 187 comments through the Dialogue Challenge (which corresponded to 87 distinct ideas) and 11 online group sessions (with over 70 people). Key characteristics were: 308 submissions from individuals, 55 from the third sector, 28 from the public sector, 9 from the private sector and 15 from local Government.
The range of views received from the public and stakeholders covered ways in which they thought the Inquiry should operate and what topics they thought Ministers should task the Inquiry with covering in its Terms of Reference. Not all of the views expressed are for Ministers to decide. Section 17 of the Inquiries Act 2005, gives an Inquiry Chair alone, rather than Ministers, responsibility for deciding how an Inquiry should operate. This includes its approach to taking evidence and engaging with its stakeholders.
Operational issues for the Inquiry
In relation to how the Inquiry could operate, a key priority for many respondents, was the assurance that human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled in the design, running and outcomes of the Inquiry.
To facilitate this, it was suggested that integrating different forms of ‘lived experience’ could be a critical part of the design of the Inquiry. To ensure accessibility (particularly for groups who have been affected worst by the pandemic) this could involve minimising barriers to participation (e.g. practical, emotional, financial, geographical) in order to accommodate and respect the broad range of people and organisations who may engage with the Inquiry.
Respondents did not make any differentiation between preferences for panel members or assessors in relation to the Inquiry Act. In general, it was suggested that a panel of members and/or assessors would be beneficial. It was raised that the Chair may also require support for the task of taking forward a person-centred, human rights based approach. This could include input from equalities experts and panel members with experience of inequality who were and/or remain disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Many respondents noted the value of interim reports by an Inquiry for facilitating ongoing engagement, allowing for scrutiny of the Inquiry process and making recommendations easier to operationalise. They could be themed or subject based but it was raised that there should be a clear rationale for how and why certain areas should be prioritised. Some critiques and cautions are that interim reports could dilute the final report and lengthen the Inquiry process.
Views on what the Inquiry Terms of Reference could cover
Views on what the public and stakeholders think should be covered in the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference broadly spanned six areas:
- health and social care
- key policy decisions
- the ‘four harms’
- pandemic preparedness
- legal frameworks
Relevant to all of these areas was the view that the Inquiry could support learning for future pandemics or emergencies.
There was a wide and diverse range of submissions in relation to matters that fell under all of the themes but particularly ‘health and social care’, ‘four harms’ and ‘key policy decisions’. These commonly included suggestions for the Inquiry to examine if the decisions made during the pandemic adhered to or breached human rights, how the Scottish Government and other public sector bodies considered equality in their decision making, and the impact of policy decisions on different groups of the population.
There was a clear view from the respondents that recommendations by the Inquiry are essential. They could capture the importance of learning, improving and accountability. Respondents suggested timelines for the recommendations and clarity on how, and by whom, implementation of the recommendations will be undertaken. The urgency of some recommendations was noted because the pandemic is still ongoing.