The Prime Minister has announced that the Government will hold an independent public inquiry into the Government and public sector response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The purpose of a statutory inquiry is to ensure transparency and lessons are learned. As such they have considerable evidence gathering powers. They are not established to determine civil or criminal liability.
The Inquiry will be wider than just health and the Devolved Administrations have agreed that it can be UK wide.
We must anticipate this will consider in detail the response of health and social care organisations to the pandemic and will require the disclosure of a considerable number of records relating to key issues arising and decisions made before and during the pandemic. It is possible that the scope could also include some post-pandemic decisions relating to the restoration of services.
It is not clear at this stage the scope of the Inquiry and how individual organisations will be involved. However, in the circumstances all staff within Hampshire and Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group are now instructed to retain all documents; correspondence; notes; emails; and all other information, however held, which contain or may contain content pertaining directly or indirectly to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and key decisions made as part of the recovery.
What is a document?
For these purposes ‘document’ means anything in which information of any description is recorded. This includes paper and electronic documents, emails, models and datastores, text messages, social media, Whatsapp, voicemail, audio and visual recordings and ‘metadata’ on computer systems which contains information including details of authorship, the date or modification of documents.
A document can be held on computers, portable devices, including memory sticks and mobile phones. Even if a personal mobile device has been utilised for communications information relevant to the pandemic response on that device may be subject to an order for disclosure in the Inquiry and should be retained.
What does the requirement to retain involve?
Staff have been asked to not delete any documents which are potentially relevant and suspend any routine document destructions policies they have in place. They have been advised that if in doubt, preserve anything that may relate to the potential public inquiry.
In due course it will be necessary to search for and identify all relevant records. It is essential that all records are appropriately saved and will be available for access including after any staff holding these have left the organisation. All records must be retained in accordance with record management requirements.
Why is document preservation essential?
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is committed to fully cooperating with any inquiry openly and transparently. In due course, once the terms of reference of the inquiry have been confirmed DCHS may be required to disclose relevant documents to the inquiry.
We will need to be clear how and why key decisions were taken. Access to relevant documents will be essential to enable those who are required to give evidence to articulate what happened during a period when many issues were being addressed at great pace. Any loss of documentation will hamper the investigation, cause delay and increase costs and could harm the reputation of the NHS.