Pressure mounts for Covid inquiry to be expedited after Hancock WhatsApp | leak Policy

Ministers are facing calls to “speed up” the public inquiry into the pandemic as official documents show civil servants are preparing for it to last for five years or more.

Labor has warned that the “painfully slow” Covid investigation increases the risk of ministers not being properly held to account for their decisions. Labor leader Keir Starmer last week called for a report by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is also facing Labor Party calls to ensure no key evidence is deleted, including ministerial communications on WhatsApp and private email accounts.

The government is under increasing pressure on how to deal with the pandemic after more than 100,000 WhatsApp messages related to Matt Hancock’s time as health secretary were leaked. Hancock described journalist Isabel Oakeshott’s news leak as “massive treason”.

The Covid-19 investigation is chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett and 62 barristers have already been trained. He will begin a hearing on June 13 on pandemic preparedness, which is the first “module” of the investigation.

An analysis by Tussell, a firm that monitors government outsourcing, found that the cost of the 37 public contracts under investigation has now reached £113m. The figures include indirect costs such as disclosure of departmental documents, legal aid and IT services. According to a spokesman for the investigation, the direct costs of the investigation up to January 2023 amounted to almost £15m.

The investigation did not set a timeframe for the investigation, but the contracts awarded in connection with it suggest that it could last for years.

The largest was awarded last May to litigation firm Legastat for its Department of Health and Human Services’ disclosure services. The £11.8m contract states that a “disclosure database” must be maintained to prepare for hearings until 31 May 2027. There is an option to extend the contract for a further two years.

Charles Arrand, a partner at law firm Shoosmiths, said that given the wide scope of the investigation, it could extend beyond 2027. “I have respect for Keir Starmer as a lawyer, but it’s wishful thinking and highly unrealistic to think that it will be a final report to end of this year,” he said.

“The pandemic and its effects have reached every corner of society. It will take some time to conduct a thorough investigation. There’s no point in spending all that money if the public doesn’t trust the investigation and its conclusions.”

Labour’s vice-president Angela Rayner said Sunak should take all necessary steps to facilitate the release of the preliminary report by the end of the year. She also urged him to prevent the destruction of relevant communications and to ensure that ministers forwarded any communications relevant to the investigation.

Lord Bethell, the former health secretary, has already admitted that he inadvertently deleted WhatsApp messages about how PPE contracts were awarded. He told BBC Radio 4 Today program last week: “I had a problem with my phone’s capacity… and I clumsily removed them. In retrospect, I regret doing it.”

Rayner said: “Rishi Sunak needs to pull himself together and take steps to prevent ministers from destroying evidence. If evidence is destroyed, justice can be denied.

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“The prime minister must take personal responsibility to ensure the public is assured that ministers are held to account and families get the answers they deserve. If he doesn’t act, he risks complicity in a cover-up.

“While Covid investigations in other countries have already concluded, the inexcusable delays caused by Tory ministers dragging their heels have hampered an already painfully slow process of getting to the truth.” At a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, Baroness Hallett said the inquiry would not be “whitewashing”. She also said it would not “go on for decades” and the decision to issue periodic reports had already been made.

A spokesman for the inquiry said: “This public inquiry has been organized to look into a wide range of tasks and it will take some time, for which the chairman did not apologize last year when the inquiry was officially opened.”

So far, three modules have been announced (Resilience and Preparedness; UK Core Decision Making and Covid-19’s Impact on UK Healthcare) with further research due to be announced in the summer.

A spokesman said the inquiry did not include a deal with Legastat and could not comment on the timeframe stated in the document.

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