A former appeal court judge will chair the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been announced.
Baroness Heather Hallett will oversee the review of the UK’s response to coronavirus, which is due to begin in the spring of next year.
The 71-year-old was immediately warned by the families of COVID victims that she “cannot afford to get it wrong” when she begins her work.
She had been due to chair a public inquiry into the death of Dawn Sturgess, who died in July 2019 following exposure to the nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, but a new chair for that inquiry will now be found.
Baroness Hallett previously led the independent inquest into the 7/7 terror bombings in London in 2005.
She also headed the 2014 “On the Runs” review into secret police letters promising immunity to Northern Ireland terror suspects, as well as chairing investigations into Iraqi deaths involving British forces.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will now consult with Baroness Hallett and ministers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the terms of reference for the COVID inquiry, which will be published in draft in the new year.
Bereaved families and other affected groups will then be included in a consultation process before the terms of reference are finalised.
The inquiry will be given full powers to compel the production of documents and summon witnesses to give evidence on oath.
The prime minister said that Baroness Hallett “brings a wealth of experience to the role”.
“I know she shares my determination that the inquiry examines in a forensic and thoroughgoing way the government’s response to the pandemic,” he added.
Following the appointment as Baroness Hallett as chair of the inquiry, additional panel members will be appointed in the new year.
The Cabinet Office said this would “make sure the inquiry has access to the full range of expertise needed to complete its important work”.
Baroness Hallett said she was “honoured” to be appointed to chair the COVID-19 inquiry, adding: “The pandemic has affected us all, some much worse than others.
“I am acutely conscious of the suffering it has caused to so many. In the new year I shall be seeking views from those who have lost loved ones and all other affected groups about the inquiry’s terms of reference.
“I want to assure the British public that, once the terms of reference are finalised, I shall do my utmost to ensure the inquiry answers as many questions as possible about the UK’s response to the pandemic so that we can all learn lessons for the future.”
There has been pressure on the prime minister to speed up the establishment of the public inquiry, so that any mistakes made in the UK’s initial response to COVID-19 could be rectified before future crises and as the pandemic continues.
The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group welcomed Baroness Hallett’s appointment but said it “comes far too late”.
“We’ve been calling for an inquiry since the end of the first wave, and we will never know how many lives could have been saved had the government had a rapid review phase in summer 2020,” said the group’s co-founder Matt Fowler.
“With the Omicron variant upon us, the inquiry really cannot come soon enough. This is a one-off, historic opportunity to learn lessons to protect lives across the country.
“We cannot afford to get it wrong and we look forward to working closely with Baroness Hallett to make it a success.”
Mr Fowler said his group looked forward to being “fully consulted” on the terms of reference and would apply for core participant status “so that our stories and loss are learned from to protect the lives of others”.
Baroness Hallett was made a life peer in the House of Lords, where she sits as a crossbencher, in July 2019 as part of former prime minister Theresa May’s resignation honours.
Sense, the national disability charity, called for a key section of the COVID inquiry to investigate the impact of coronavirus on disabled people and their families.
Lady Poole, a senior judge, was this week appointed to chair a separate public inquiry specifically into the Scottish government’s actions throughout the pandemic.
There have been calls for specific inquiries to be also held into the COVID response in Wales and Northern Ireland, separate to the UK-wide inquiry to be chaired by Baroness Hallett.