Image: Tim Dennell – CC BY-NC 2.0

The Covid-19 pandemic has delivered a shock to every aspect of the system we live under. It has shone a light on the failings of government and brought social inequality in the UK into sharp relief.

As of February 2022 there have been an estimated 17 million cases of Covid-19 in the UK and 157,000 deaths. The UK stands out with among the highest number of recorded Covid-19 deaths in the world. Working class communities, particularly black, minoritized and migrant communities, older people, disabled people, people with chronic illnesses, and those on low incomes or living in substandard accommodation have been hit hardest by Covid-19. It has magnified the social impact particularly affecting those who are unemployed, homeless and those with mental health problems.

The need for a public inquiry

It is widely accepted that the Government did too little too late in response to the spread of Covid-19. More than a decade of economic austerity had already reduced the ability of state institutions to respond effectively to the crisis.

In May 2022 the Prime Minister announced an independent public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. The Inquiry was officially established on 28 June 2022 and the first preliminary hearings took place in November 2022. There is now an official website where updates, public documents and information about the inquiry is published.

Given the impact of Covid-19 on all aspects of life and society in the UK, this public inquiry is likely to be one of the widest ranging ever held. However, if it is to be of true social value the inquiry will need to be robust and to pursue its inquisitorial function with vigour.

What will the Covid-19 public inquiry examine?

The inquiry will be divided into modules that will examine different aspects of the pandemic. Three modules have been announced so far covering the government’s pandemic preparedness and resilience (Module 1), decision-making and political governance in response to the pandemic and will be subdivided into four sections covering England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (Module 2), and the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems across the four nations of the UK (Module 3). Further modules will be announced in due course and we expect to be making applications in later modules as they open.

Who are PILC representing?

Module 2

PILC are representing Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and supporting Solace Women’s Aid (SWA) in Module 2. We will be particularly highlighting the impact of the pandemic and the government’s decisions on survivors of domestic abuse. Both organisations faced a huge increase in referrals as the pandemic hit and were crucial in holding the government to account for the lack of funding available to support survivors.

Southall Black Sisters is a not-for-profit organisation which was established in 1979 to meet the needs of black and ethnic minority women. For more than four decades SBS have been at the forefront of challenging domestic and gender-related violence locally and nationally and have campaigned for the provision of proper and accountable support services to enable women and their children to escape violent relationships.

Solace Women’s Aid is one of the largest providers of services to help end gender-based violence. Their mission is to end the harm done through gender-based violence and to work alongside survivors to achieve independent lives free from abuse. Their aim is to work to prevent violence and abuse as well as providing services to meet the individual needs of survivors, particularly women, young people and children.

Module 3

In Module 3, we are representing Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), United Voices of the World (UVW) and Kanlungan together as the Frontline Migrant Health Workers Group (FMHWG). We will be raising the voices of precariously employed workers across the healthcare system and the disproportionate impact the pandemic had on them.

These organisations particularly represent workers from working class migrant communities, and many of their members worked in frontline roles throughout the pandemic. Their members were exposed to huge risk in their work and their roles were crucial in managing the spread of Covid-19. However, their working conditions were often poor, and they went without proper protections, fair pay or contracts. IWGB, UVW and Kanlungan launched campaigns, engaged with government, compiled reports, and brought strategic legal claims to fight for their members rights and protections during this time and continue to do so.

IWGB is a national trade union founded in 2012 by Latin American cleaners organising for better working conditions. The IWGB organise to challenge exploitative practices which deny its members basic worker rights. Many of IWGB’s members worked in crucial frontline roles during lockdown and the wider pandemic, as cleaners, security staff, porters, couriers, taxi and delivery drivers.

UVW is a member-led, direct action, anti-racist, campaigning trade union and their aim is to support and empower the most vulnerable groups of precarious, low-paid and predominantly BAME and migrant workers in the UK. UVW brings together workers across many sectors including cleaning, security, catering and portering from the typically outsourced facilities/services sector and also hospitality, retail, construction, health care workers and other professions including sex workers, artists, architects, childcare workers, social workers, charity sector workers and legal sector workers.

Kanlungan is a consortium of several Filipino community organisations working closely together for the welfare and interests of the Filipino and other migrant communities in Britain. Kanlungan has been serving Filipino, East and Southeast Asian migrant communities for more than 25 years.

These organisations are considered Core Participants in the Inquiry process. We expect to be attending substantive public hearings in Module 2 in September 2023 and in Module 3 in 2024.

The Chair has stated that inequalities will be ‘at the heart’ of her analysis of the pandemic and we are committed to holding the Inquiry to account on this. We also hope to make clear that Government austerity and a decade of cuts in frontline and essential services have made a massive impact on the ability our institutions to respond. The billions of pounds of cuts from the NHS, local authorities, social care, to jobs and services robbed the ability of frontline services to cope.

Module 4

In Module 4, we are representing the Migrant Primary Care Access Group (MPCAG) which is a collective of organisations that seeks to raise the voice and experience of refugees and migrants and their experiences during the pandemic.

Module 4 is a distinct part of the Inquiry which seeks to examine the development of Covid-19 vaccines and the implementation of the vaccine rollout programme in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Inquiry intends to focus on lessons learned and preparedness for the next pandemic.

The MPCAG comprises the following organisations Doctors of the World UK; the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants; Medact and Kanlungan. All of these organisations brings a distinct individual and collective voice to the Inquiry, and hope to engage the migrant and refugee experience.

PILC’s work on the Covid-19 Inquiry is led by Paul Heron, Helen Mowatt and Juliet Galea-Glennie. For further information, please contact helen.mowatt@pilc.org.uk.