Covid-19 memorial wall UK

The Covid-19 Inquiry: how can charities get involved?

By Dan Paskins 19 March 2024 5 minute read

In this blog, Dan Paskins, Director of UK Impact at Save the Children, shares what the charity has learned from its involvement in the Covid-19 Inquiry.  

In September 2022, I received an email from Alice Ferguson, Co-founder of Playing Out.  She wondered if Save the Children would be interested in applying to be core participants at the Covid-19 Inquiry, alongside Playing Out and Just for Kids Lawwhich also hosts the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE). 

We thought this was a great strategic opportunity. The Covid-19 pandemic and the UK government’s response had, in our view, had a massive impact on children’s rights and wellbeing. Time and time again, children were an afterthought for decision-makers, which caused harm at the time, and continues to have a lasting impact on their social and emotional development. Plus, the application form to be a core participant was quite short and our partners had already done most of the work to complete it. 

Our role as a Core Participant 

As Core Participants, it was our responsibility to advise the Inquiry and ensure that issues around children’s rights and wellbeing were considered, as part of the investigation of high level political and administrative decision-making during the pandemic. 

The first part of our work involved attending a number of preliminary hearings to support the Inquiry team with how they planned to gather evidence and run the inquiry.  We then had the opportunity to read and analyse thousands of official documents which were submitted in evidence.  Finally, we were able to attend the public evidence hearings, where our barrister would make an opening and closing statement and cross-examine the witnesses.  At some point next year, the Chair will write an interim report, and in 2025 or 2026 there will be a module which is specifically about children and education. 

This experience was new to us. Every week the legal team pored over evidence and questions for the upcoming witnesses. While media coverage focused on the bad language and pantomime of politicians and civil servants, we were concerned by what, if any, was being asked about the experience of children as part of the wider picture. Being in the room, we could sense which arguments had cut through to the Chair of the Inquiry, and which were deemed less relevant.  

Setting out our case 

Our case was as follows: children’s rights and wellbeing had not been sufficiently considered by decision-makersthis was known at the time, not just with the benefit of hindsight. And it highlights systemic issues with how the UK government makes decisions, which are exacerbated when it responds to a crisis. The systemic issues go deeper than individual errors or personalities.   

We participated to learn, not to blame. We wanted to highlight reforms that would enable better decisions to be made in times of crisis and show that investment is needed now to support the ‘Covid Generation’ of children who were failed by the state.  We published  a report about this last year.  What was noteworthy was that the Inquiry provided an opportunity to show that the evidence for this case was overwhelming—it was not seriously disputed by any of the decision-makers or any of the official evidence.  

What it takes to be a Core Participant  

Participating in an Inquiry like this is not something we could have done on our own.  Just for Kids Law and CRAE were brilliant partners to work with.  The Inquiry decided to offer them funding (but not us), which meant that they could hire two leading barristers from Garden Court Chambers, as well as a solicitor and two paralegals. We were also able to draw on an absolutely extraordinary level of pro bono support from Norton Rose Fullbright, who we have a partnership with, who analysed and summarised millions of documents for us using cutting edge e-discovery resources and a team of paralegals, as well as providing project management support.  As well as Playing Out, other charities and campaigning groups, including Barnardo’s and UsforThem, were very generous in sharing evidence, and we worked closely with Anne Longfield, the former Children’s Commissioner for England.  Other core participants found that the costs of participating in the Inquiry escalated very quickly.  I think it would be useful for there to be more guidance for future public inquiries to ensure that funding is available for charities to participate, and we plan to do some more on this in the new year. 

Getting cut through in a public inquiry  

Lastly, we decided right from the start that our engagement with the Inquiry would be aimed both at influencing and using it as a way of sparking wider public debate.  We were constructive, helpful, and well prepared in all of our engagement with the Inquiry.  But we were also prepared to speak out publicly where we felt children weren’t getting a fair hearing.  Given the sheer breadth of the Inquiry’s scope, we knew there was always a chance that our cause wouldn’t get much attention, so we were prepared to take a more publicly critical approach if that had been needed.  Our media team did a great job of turning our work for the Inquiry into stories, which generated lots of press coverage and debate. Including two separate front-page stories in the Daily Telegraph about the need for the Inquiry to fully consider children’s rights and experiences of the pandemic. 

Our experience has taught us that the key to making the most of these opportunities involves being clear about the core argument, building effective partnerships, ensuring sufficient capacity in the project team, and being flexible about different tactics to engage with inquiries both directly and in the court of public opinion.  

Participation in public inquiries can be a valuable and effective way for charities to advance their mission and objectives. Our involvement ensured that questions were asked of witnessesincluding top politicians, scientists, and civil servantsabout children and their experiences that might have otherwise been lost. Without the active engagement from charities representing different groups, particularly marginalised groups, there is a real risk that the Inquiry would not be scrutinising the issues pertinent to them, and that the government would not be held to account.  


Related items