Ministers face calls to “fast-track” the public inquiry into the pandemic as official documents show civil servants are preparing to run it for five years or more.
The Labor Party has warned that “painfully slow” Covid testing risks ministers not being properly held accountable for their decisions. Labor leader Keir Starmer last week asked it to report by the end of the year.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also faces calls from Labor to ensure that no vital evidence is erased, including ministerial communications on WhatsApp and private email accounts.
The government is under increasing pressure over its handling of the pandemic after more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages dating back to Matt Hancock’s time as health secretary were leaked. Hancock described the leaking of the messages by journalist Isabel Oakeshott as a “massive betrayal”.
The COVID-19 inquiry is being chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett and has already instructed 62 barristers. It will begin hearing evidence on pandemic preparedness on June 13, the first “module” of the inquiry.
Analysis by government outsourcing tracking firm Tassel has shown that the cost of the 37 public contracts under investigation has now reached £113m. These figures include indirect costs such as departmental document disclosure, legal support and information technology services. According to an inquiry spokesman, the direct cost of the inquiry until January 2023 is less than £15m.
The inquiry has not given a time frame for its investigation, but the contracts given in connection with it suggest that it could go on for years.
The largest award was made last May to litigation support firm Legastat for disclosure services for inquiries from the Department of Health and Social Care. The £11.8m contract states that a “disclosure database” must be maintained until 31 May 2027 to prepare for hearings. There is an option to extend the contract for two more years.
Charles Arndt, a partner at the legal firm Shoesmiths, said given the broad scope of the investigation, it could extend beyond 2027. There should be a final report by the end of this year,” he said.
“The pandemic and its impact reached every corner of the society. Detailed investigation will take time. There is no point in spending all this money unless the public has faith in the investigation and its findings.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said Sunak should take all necessary steps to facilitate the publication of a preliminary report by the end of the year. He also asked ministers to stop any destruction of relevant communications and to hand over every single message relevant to the investigation.
Lord Bethel, a former health minister, has already admitted to inadvertently deleting WhatsApp messages relating to personal protective equipment contracts. he told BBC Radio 4 Today program last week: “There was a problem with the capacities on my phone … and I clumsily deleted them. In retrospect, I regret doing so.
Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak must be caught and steps must be taken to prevent the destruction of evidence by government ministers. If evidence is destroyed, justice can be denied.”
“The Prime Minister must take personal responsibility for ensuring that the public has confidence that Ministers will be held accountable and families get the answers they deserve. If he fails to act, he runs the risk of being complicit in a cover-up.
“While other countries’ Covid inquiries have already concluded, the inexcusable delay caused by Tory ministers dragging their heels has slowed the already slow process of getting to the truth.” At the preliminary inquiry hearing on Wednesday, Baroness Hallett said the inquiry would not be a “whitewash”. She also said that this “will not drag on for decades” and that the decision to issue an interim report had already been made.
An inquiry spokesman said: “This public inquiry has been set up to investigate the wider conditions and will take time, about which the Speaker made no apology when the inquiry was officially launched last year.”
So far three modules have been announced (resilience and preparedness; key UK decision making, and the impact of COVID-19 on UK healthcare), with further investigations to be announced over the summer.
The spokeswoman said the investigation had not contracted with Legastat and could not comment on the time frame given in the document.