Bereaved families fear Covid inquiry cover-up after ban on testimony

As hearings open this week, relatives are told they will not be able to speak about hospital care standards

Families of those who died from Covid-19 have been barred from submitting individual testimony to the official public inquiry about the standard of care received by their loved ones during the pandemic, the Observer can reveal.

Instead, the inquiry chair, Lady Hallett, is proposing they submit “pen portraits” to a private research company as part of a parallel “Listening Project” that will not have the power to demand the disclosure of documents or investigate claims about their relatives’ care.

“It would appear that Lady Hallett would rather outsource the grief of bereaved families to the Listening Project than engage with us constructively,” said John Sullivan, whose daughter, Susan, died in March 2020 at Barnet hospital after being denied access to an intensive therapy unit because of her Down’s syndrome and supposed cardiac comorbidities. “The inquiry is becoming a farce and an exercise in cover-up,” he said, ahead of the first hearing on Tuesday.

Sullivan is just one of scores of bereaved people who believe their loved ones were victims of inappropriate triaging procedures and Do Not Attempt Resuscitation (DNAR) or Do Not Attempt Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) orders.

Such orders are used to inform a medical team not to attempt resuscitation and are designed to communicate a patient’s wishes to healthcare professionals. Any decision regarding DNARs must be made on an individual basis with the involvement of the patient and/or their families, where they have legal guardianship.

Independent reports have revealed that adults with learning disabilities had been subject to inappropriate DNAR orders, while some GPs had apparently requested DNAR forms be inserted into the files of care home residents using a “blanket approach”.

The Observer has now learned of similar cases of DNAR orders being applied to elderly individuals hospitalised with Covid.

For instance, Rab Sherwood, who works for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice (CBFFJ) activist group, which spearheaded the campaign for an independent public inquiry, claims that when her elderly parents were admitted to a hospital in the West Midlands with Covid in January 2021, DNAR orders were placed on their medical notes against her express wishes.

When Sherwood demanded an explanation as to why her mother, Gurdev, a fit 75-year-old, would not be considered for admission to ITU, a consultant handed her a document produced by the Intensive Care Society containing a “decision-making” instrument setting out various scenarios in which frail and elderly people might be “less likely to benefit” from intensive care. When she queried the document, Sherwood claims she was told: “If you have an issue, take it up with the government.”

Boris Johnson and the chief medical officer, Chris Witty, hold a Covid media briefing in Downing Street.
Boris Johnson and the chief medical officer, Chris Witty, hold a Covid media briefing in Downing Street. Photograph: Simon Dawson/No10 Downing Street

Matt Fowler, the co-founder of CBFFJ, says he’s heard countless stories of hospitals refusing to escalate treatment for elderly and vulnerable people. “This is why it’s so critical that Lady Hallett listens personally to the stories of bereaved families and is fearless in the pursuit of answers about what happened to their loved ones, no matter how uncomfortable,” he said. “If the inquiry leaves bereaved families out in the cold, it has no hope of getting to the truth and learning lessons that can protect people in the future.”

Under the inquiry’s terms of reference, Hallett has a duty to listen to and “carefully” consider the experiences of bereaved families. However, there is no specific requirement for her to consider “individual cases of harm or death”.

This summer, lawyers representing the CBFFJ met Hallett in the hope of persuading her to accept individual testimony from the bereaved. In correspondence seen by the Observer, CBFFJ’s lawyers, Broudie Jackson Canter, agreed this could be done “outside the formality of a hearing” in order to avoid Hallett having to listen to testimony from many witnesses. However, lawyers insisted that the pen portraits and testimony submitted as part of the Listening Project ought to be treated as evidence and entered into the legal record.

“The voices of the bereaved are too important to be heard in another parallel process,” they wrote.

However, last week Hallett appeared to close down that avenue by inviting 12 firms on a pre-approved government list to tender for the Listening Project. The list includes firms previously awarded Covid public health contracts, presenting a potential conflict of interests.

The Observer understands that the winner of the contract will be asked to analyse the bereaved statements and summarise them in a report to the inquiry. However, there will be no requirement for Hallett to listen directly to individual accounts from the bereaved or examine the circumstances surrounding their loved ones’ deaths. Nor will lawyers be funded to compile dossiers on the cases.

A spokesperson for the inquiry said that although it “will not consider in detail individual cases of harm or death, listening to these accounts will inform its understanding of the impact of the pandemic and the response, and of the lessons to be learned”.

She also stressed that the inquiry “has made no decisions on which witnesses to call at its public hearings” and was at “a very early stage”.


Mark Honigsbaum

The GuardianTramp

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