UK COVID 19 Public Inquiry
By Conal McGarrity
Latest News

Covid Inquiry


More deaths were caused by the Covid-19 pandemic than any other single event in recent history.  Deaths were particularly concentrated amongst the most vulnerable groups in our society (the elderly and the disabled) and a disproportionate number of deaths occurred in care home settings.  What is clear from the stories of bereaved families is that many of these deaths could and should have been prevented.

The UK Covid-19 Public Inquiry was established on 28th June 2022 to examine the UK’s response to and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and to learn lessons for the future.

It was established as a direct result of campaigning from Covid Bereaved Families for Justice (CBFFJ) who had been calling for a wide- reaching statutory inquiry that would establish the truth about how and why so many people lost their lives and whether thousands upon thousands of deaths could and should have been prevented. 

Martina Ferguson and Brenda Doherty both tragically lost their mothers (Ursula Derry passed away on 4th January 2021 and Ruth Burke passed away on 24th March 2020) during the pandemic and co-lead Northern Ireland CBFFJ.

The goal of NICBFFJ has always been, and remains, to establish what happened to their loved ones, to participate effectively in that pursuit of the truth, and, in so doing, to ensure accountability and to prevent future deaths.  The Group has been adamant that the Inquiry must involve the bereaved in a meaningful way and we have made consistent representations that the bereaved lived experience must be at the centre of the Inquiry process.  They are determined that the stories of their loved ones will not be forgotten. 

Brenda Doherty and Caitriona Myles gave evidence on behalf of the Group in Modules 1 (Planning and Resilience) and 2 (UK Government Response).  Their lived experience is a profound reminder of the human impact of the many failures in pandemic preparedness and response, which can often be lost in the intensive examination of Government bureaucracy which occupied the work of the Inquiry during the hearings.  It also brought into focus the importance of hearing from the bereaved and demonstrates why the Inquiry must hear from more families moving forward.

Modules 1 & 2:

Hearings into Modules 1 and 2 have now concluded and we await final reports from the Chair, Baroness Hallett.  The reports will reach conclusions on the evidence heard, set out findings on what lessons have been learned.  Critically, it will also contain recommendations for Government on what changes it needs to make.

In our closing submissions we have set out a wide-ranging and comprehensive list of recommendations that would result in wholesale reform to Civil Contingencies in Northern Ireland and we have urged the Inquiry to adopt them all as part of their final report.  There is also an expectation by NICBFFJ that the Northern Ireland Government will adopt all final recommendations without delay or qualification.

Module 1:

In Module 1 we heard evidence from witnesses including Michelle O’Neill, Arlene Foster, Robin Swann, Matt Hancock (Former Minister for Health 2018-2021) and David Cameron (Former Prime Minister 2010-2016).

The following evidence was heard:

  • A pandemic such as Covid-19 was entirely predictable

  • The Northern Ireland health system was in a state of systemic collapse and more generally was wholly unable to deal with a pandemic

  • NI was at least 18 months behind the rest of the UK in pandemic planning

  • Lack of legislation and statutory protection in relation to Civil Contingencies in Northern Ireland 

  • Legislative gaps in NI in that large parts of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 do not apply to NI and were not filled by devolved legislation.

  • Civil contingencies and pandemic preparedness and risk assessments and exercises were not implemented and even where steps were taken to implement recommendations of the exercises, they were not completed.

  • The Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department of Health did not provide any scientific advice to the Executive prior to the pandemic. Professor Young highlighted to the Inquiry in Module 1 that no requests to provide scientific advice to the Northern Ireland Executive, to inform its decisions, in the period following his appointment (in 2015) up to the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

  • The absence of a Chief Scientific Adviser to the NI Executive was an inherent weakness - this is a position that we understand has still not been filled.

  • The absence of an Assembly and Executive between 2017-2020 had an damaging impact on preparedness 

Our final submissions focus on the need for robust legislation and the need to make the critical triumvirate pandemic planners - scientific advisers, civil servants and ministers - accountable in law - they can be accessed at

Module 2:

Module 2 was the Inquiry’s investigation into UK Government political and administrative decision making. Hearings ran for 9 weeks during the Autumn of 2023. During the course of hearings, we heard from 76 witnesses including current PM Rishi Sunak, former PM Boris Johnson, as well as a range of Ministers, high level civil servants and scientists who were involved in the UK’s Covid-19 response.

The following evidence was heard:

• The UK Government saw Northern Ireland and other devolved nations as ‘problems to be managed’ rather than valued partners to be consulted with on the Covid-19 response

• The failure of the UK Government to recognise the epidemiological reality of the UK, particularly the adoption of a ‘one size fits all’ approach where Northern Ireland was expected to follow the lead of the UK Government even though it shared a border with the Republic of Ireland. 

• The UK Government’s failure to recognise and respond to the pandemic in a timely manner despite overwhelming evidence of an impending disaster. 

• The UK Government’s failure to protect the most vulnerable, particularly in relation to the policy of discharging untested hospital patients in to care homes. 

• The toxic culture within the UK Government during the pandemic. In particular, the attitude of ageism and fatalistic approach taken in relation to the elderly and disabled. 

• Chaos and dysfunction in relation to the actions of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his staff. 

• The lack of dignity in death for the deceased and the bereaved. 

This Module was unique in many respects. It was the first time that a sitting PM has given evidence in the same Inquiry as a former PM. The public also had a unique insight into high level politicians and advisers WhatsApp messages which provide a contemporaneous snapshot of how important decisions were being informed and taken during a time of crisis. 

These WhatsApps, together with other contemporaneous evidence examined by the Inquiry in Module 2, provide a very dramatic first draft of the tragic history that was the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In our closing submissions on behalf of NICBFFJ we noted that this was a history that would reflect poorly on the UK Government and that, ultimately, it’s performance would be measured in lives lost. 

Module 2C:

Module 2C follows on from Module 1 and 2 and will be of particular importance to our client group and to Northern Ireland as a whole.

While Module 2 investigated core political and administrative governance and decision-making for the UK Module 2C will address the strategic and overarching issues from the perspective of Northern Ireland. These will be treated as a co-equal module. Public hearings will be held in Belfast and will commence on 30th April 2024.

Module 2C will look at some of the following: how the structures within Northern Ireland responded, communication with the UK Government, initial understanding and response, decision making in relation to NPIs, access to and use of medical and scientific advice, modelling and data, public health and the impact of breaches of rules and standards by Ministers, officials and advisors.

The denial of proper of burial and funeral rituals will also be examined and is an issue of concern to our group.  Many families did not get a proper opportunity to say goodbye and this trauma remains with them to this day.

These issues will inevitably be examined against a background of key events that occurred in Northern Ireland during that period.  The decision to suspend Regulation Quality Inspectorate Authority (RQIA) inspections on 20th March 2020, the resignations that followed culminating in the Nicholls’ Report, published on 8th December 2020, and the decision to discharge many hospital patients into care homes without proper testing in April 2020, had devastating consequences and these decisions will be closely scrutinised.


As part of their ongoing campaign NI Covid Bereaved Families for Justice will be conducting a day of action on 30th April 2024 at the hearing centre in Belfast.

There will be a strong focus on telling the stories of those who lost their lives and ensuring that they are not forgotten.  Indeed, there will be a concerted effort throughout Module 2C hearings to have as many stories told as possible through a wide variety of different forums.  NICBFFJ will continue to campaign for the Inquiry to hear evidence from more families and to ensure that the bereaved are involved in a meaningful way.

We are all stakeholders in ensuring that our Government are better prepared to deal with a future pandemic.  That is why the UK-Covid Inquiry and the role of NICBFFJ is so important.

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