UK COVID-19 Inquiry: terms of reference consultation outcome

Baroness Hallett, who was appointed Chair of the UK COVID-19 Inquiry in December 2021, has published her Terms of Reference Consultation Summary Report on the responses to her consultation and her conclusions on those responses. Many respondents pointed out that the proposed Terms of Reference had made no reference to religion or the restrictions placed on places of worship, particularly in relation to the restrictions on funerals.

In her response to the consultation, she proposes that those issues be addressed as follows [emphasis in original]:

Human rights and civil liberties

A theme throughout the consultation process has been the impact of the pandemic on human rights and civil liberties. Respondents raised a wide range of issues that were perceived to impact on rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, including:

    • Whether the government’s initial pandemic response was consistent with the Article 2 duty on the state to take appropriate preventative measures to safeguard lives;
    • The mandating of vaccinations within some sectors, and the requirements for vaccine certification for international travel;
    • The interaction of the closure of places of worship with the right to freedom of religion;
    • The impact of the enforcement of Covid-related restrictions on the freedom of assembly, particularly in regard to protests;
    • Freedom of speech, particularly in relation to the flagging and removal of content from social media and the perceived suppression of scientists who challenged the prevailing view of Covid-related restrictions.

Many of these responses asked that the Inquiry applies a specific human rights focus to its investigations.

Baroness Hallett understands the concerns but does not believe any further amendments to the Terms of Reference on this issue are necessary. The scope and impact of any relevant and applicable human rights will be fully explored as they arise in our work and, given the weight of concern on this issue, she has concluded that, in carrying out our work, the Inquiry will adopt the ‘PANEL’ principles of Participation, Accountability, Non-discrimination, Empowerment and Legality, as used in human rights investigations, to guide the Inquiry’s design.”


The experience of bereavement and funerals

Concerns about the support provided to bereaved families were frequently raised during the consultation. Respondents asked that the Inquiry investigate the mental health impact of restrictions on visiting dying relatives in hospitals and care homes, and of restrictions on attendance at funerals — particularly where funerals could not be conducted in accordance with cultural or religious customs. Respondents also noted the lack of financial support for the bereaved and the reclaiming of overpayments of benefits to the deceased.

Baroness Hallett agrees that these issues should be reflected in the draft Terms of Reference, and the additional references allowing the Inquiry to address mental health, mentioned previously, will give us that scope. However, to ensure greater clarity, she also recommends adding:

    • the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of the bereaved, including post-bereavement support

In addition to many powerful and moving responses from people bereaved during the pandemic, we also heard about the impact of the pandemic on the mortuary and funeral sector, with respondents noting the difficulties caused by multiple government departments producing guidance affecting the sector and inconsistencies in approach between the UK and devolved governments. The impact on staff within the sector was also raised — for example, difficulties faced in accessing testing and PPE or being recognised as ‘key workers’.

Baroness Hallett considers that the current draft of the Terms of Reference allows for consideration of these issues, and does not, therefore, recommend any further amendments.

Places of worship

We have heard from faith groups about the restrictions applied to places of worship and the impact this had on community support, the marking of life events such as marriages and funerals, and the observation of religious festivals.

The response to the consultation also raised concerns about the interaction between restrictions on places of worship and the rights to freedom of religion and freedom of assembly under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Baroness Hallett therefore recommends the Terms of Reference are amended to include:

    • the closure and reopening of the hospitality, retail, sport and leisure and travel and tourism sectors, places of worship, and cultural institutions.”

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