he UK may not have been “very well prepared at all” to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the lead lawyer to the official Covid-19 Inquiry said as public hearings began.
Hugo Keith KC said on Tuesday that the nation was “taken by surprise” by “significant aspects” of the disease that has been recorded on 226,977 death certificates.
He argued that preparations for Brexit had distracted the Government from making the improvements required to the strategy on how to tackle a deadly pandemic.
He told chair of the inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallett: “The pandemic struck the United Kingdom just as it was leaving the European Union.
“That departure required an enormous amount of planning and preparation, particularly to address what were likely to be the severe consequences of a no-deal exit on food and medicine supplies, travel and transport, business borders and so on.
“It is clear that such planning, from 2018 onwards, crowded out and prevented some or perhaps a majority of the improvements that central government itself understood were required to be made to resilience planning and preparedness.
“Did the attention therefore paid to the risks of a no-deal exit – Operation Yellowhammer as it was known – drain the resources and capacity that should have been continuing the fight against the next pandemic, that should have been utilised in preparing the United Kingdom for civil emergency?
“Or did all that generic and operational planning in fact lead to people being better trained and well marshalled and, in fact, better prepared to deal with Covid and also to the existence of improved trade, medicine and supply links?
“My lady on the evidence so far, but it will be a matter for you, we very much fear that it was the former.”
The Operation Yellowhammer document, which was published by the Government in 2019, set out a series of “reasonable worst-case assumptions” about what would happen if the UK did not reach a deal with the EU.
It suggested there would be real risks of a rise in public disorder, higher food prices and reduced medical supplies.
Mr Keith has spent Tuesday morning detailing the events that led up to the first Covid lockdown in March 2020.
A lawyer for the Northern Ireland Department of Health acknowledged Brexit preparations “did divert some of our focus away from pandemic preparedness planning, as was no doubt the case for all four nations of the United Kingdom”.
But Neasa Murnaghan KC told the inquiry there were also some advantages associated with the EU exit preparations, including recently trained staff for emergencies and increased buffer stocks of medicines.
The inquiry also heard from bereaved families in a series of moving video interviews, which included harrowing stories of people dying alone from Covid.
Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett vowed that those who suffered in the pandemic will “always be at the heart of the inquiry” as she launched the first public hearing.
The retired Court of Appeal judge welcomed the “dignified vigil” held by bereaved relatives outside the building in west London as she vowed to undertake the thorough investigation they deserve.
She said she intends to answer three key questions: was the UK properly prepared for the pandemic, was the response appropriate, and can lessons be learned for the future?
Mr Keith said that, near the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care, along with the three devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, published a Covid-19 action plan “setting out how they planned to tackle the coronavirus outbreak”.
“The plan stated that the United Kingdom was well prepared to respond in a way that offered substantial protection to the public. Whether that was actually the case will be examined in module one,” he said in his opening statement.
“Even at this stage, before hearing the evidence, it is apparent that we might not have been very well prepared at all.”
Mr Keith said the significant risks of pandemics had been long assessed and officials had planned for them.
“But fundamentally, in relation to significant aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were taken by surprise,” he added.
The lawyer said there is a need to question whether the health services were sufficiently funded or suffered from “under-investment” ahead of the pandemic that “left in its wake death, misery and incalculable loss”.
Mr Keith said that key to the first phase of the inquiry is whether the “terrible outcomes” for people with existing health conditions and disabilities, as well as for people from deprived or ethnic minority backgrounds, were “foreseen or could have been mitigated”.
“Huge, urgent and complex policy decisions” were necessary in areas including shielding, employment support, schools, borders and lockdown restrictions,” he added.
“Few of those areas were anticipated, let alone considered in detail.”
Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group lined up outside, holding pictures of loved ones as they expressed frustration at feeling “excluded from sharing key evidence”.
Lady Hallett said she had set out an “ambitious” timetable for the inquiry, adding: “To conduct the kind of thorough investigation the people of the United Kingdom deserve takes time and a great deal of preparation.
“I hope they will understand when they see the results of the work we are doing that I am listening to them. Their loss will be recognised.”
Pete Weatherby KC, representing the Covid Bereaved Families for Justice UK, said they expect evidence to show “chaos” in Government led to a slow reaction.
Claire Mitchell KC, for the group representing relatives in Scotland, said leaders were accused of “presiding over a carousel of chaos”.
Kirsten Heaven, on behalf of Welsh families, said they were “very disappointed” that the government in Cardiff was not launching its own inquiry over its “inadequate response”.
For relatives in Northern Ireland, Ronan Lavery KC said “decades of political dysfunction” had led to a lack of preparedness and that the region was 18 months behind the rest of the UK in resilience.
A 17-minute video was played at the inquiry, showing people describing the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on themselves and their loved ones, including those who had died alone.
One woman cried as she said her father had died, followed, just a few days later, by her sister, and that she suffered guilt over the way they had died.
Another woman said she had “lost everything”, while others described suffering anxiety.
People also told how they had not hugged each other at family funerals because they were sticking to Covid social distancing rules laid down by the Government.
The hearing was also told that people could not be buried in outfits chosen by families because body bags had to remain sealed.
The inquiry will be split into six areas, with the first looking at whether the UK was adequately prepared for the pandemic.
Interim reports are scheduled to be published before public hearings conclude by summer 2026.
A separate Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry chaired by Lord Brailsford is looking at the pandemic response in devolved areas in Scotland.