The issue of a public enquiry into the Covid pandemic and the Government's handling of the health crisis has been back in the news again after Boris Johnson announced that a public inquiry will be held in 2022.  But what is a public inquiry, what does one involve and how long might it take?

The inquiry is likely to be held under the Inquiries Act 2005.  The Act provides that a Government Minister can cause an inquiry to be held "in relation to a case where it appears to him that particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern".

The Minister must appoint the inquiry panel (including its chair).  The chair is usually legally qualified (for example, senior judges or lawyers), but doesn't have to be.  The Minister will then set out a date for the commencement of the inquiry and the terms of reference.

Once created, the panel chair has wide-ranging powers to direct the inquiry (within the scope of the terms of reference), which includes a power to compel individuals to provide a witness statement, to give evidence at the inquiry and/or to provide documents.

In relation to a Covid-19 inquiry, issues to be considered by the chair and panel are likely to include the UK's preparedness for handling pandemics; decisions taken in the early days of the pandemic (including, for example, how and when cases came into the UK); the availability and procurement of PPE in healthcare settings; the spread of Covid-19 in care homes and other healthcare settings; the test and trace system; lockdown measures (including the timing of lockdowns and their range and scope); vaccination development and rollout; border closures; the lifting of restrictions, etc.

Inquiries are notorious for taking a long time and costing a lot of money.  The Institute for Government states "The 69 inquiries launched between 1990 and 2017 have varied a lot in duration, although most take around two years to report back. The shortest inquiry was the Hammond inquiry into ministerial conduct relating to the Hinduja affair; this took only 45 days. The longest was the inquiry into Hyponatraemia-related deaths; this took 13 years and three months to complete".  The most expensive inquiry - the Bloody Sunday Inquiry - cost £210.6m (at 2017 prices).

So whilst an inquiry into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic might start in 2022, it certainly won't end until 2023 at the earliest, and probably more likely 2024. 

It is also worth noting that each of the devolved administrations has the power to set up its own inquiry.  So it is possible that inquiries by the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland might be set up and run alongside of (but separate from) the UK Government's proposed inquiry.

Whilst the UK Government's announcement to hold an inquiry seems to have been generally well-received, it is going to be a long time until we get the inquiry report - and we may see more than one inquiry taking place.