Last month, the inquiry gave an update on plans to continue work and potentially resume hearings remotely, after, inquiry chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick suspended hearings due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Sir Martin commented that ‘the Panel has decided that the Inquiry should hold no further hearings for the time being.

‘To do so, even on the basis of limited attendance, would be to expose those whose presence is essential for that purpose, not to mention those whom we wish to call as witnesses, to an unacceptable risk of infection. It would also send the wrong signal to the world at large at a time when everyone is being urged to cooperate with measures designed to minimise the effect of the virus.

‘We very much regret that it has been necessary to take this step and we shall be giving careful consideration to whether it is possible to resume hearings using electronic means, but even if that is not possible the work of the Inquiry will continue. We shall keep you informed of developments as they occur and I hope that it will not be long before we can continue taking evidence’.

More recently, it gave an update on reaching module one of phase two, focusing on refurbishment of the tower, and that it was ‘continuing to explore whether it may be possible to resume hearings on a remote basis before restrictions are lifted’, with core participants to be updated ‘when it is in a position to do so’. All inquiry team members are working remotely as well ‘to ensure operations continue’, with support services still in place and drop ins halted.

The latest update meanwhile saw it note that while hearings are suspended ‘the work of the Inquiry continues’, including document disclosure to core participants, evidence analysis and preparing questions for witnesses, as well as experts writing reports for the second phase. ‘Potential options’ for hearings to continue have been outlined, with core participants and witnesses written to in order to establish their views on three options.

These include suspending hearings until social restrictions ‘have been lifted completely’; conducting hearings remotely via video conferencing platforms; or resuming hearings with limited attendance ‘when social restrictions are partially lifted’. The inquiry aims to ‘set out’ its current thinking and seek views ‘before any decision is made’, with a ‘fundamental balancing exercise to be carried out’.

This is ‘between the need to maintain momentum and further the Inquiry’s work by taking oral evidence’, and the ‘need to maintain the integrity and quality of that evidence as well as the physical and psychological well-being of the witnesses and other key participants’. Responses to the letter were requested to be sent in by 27 April.

The Guardian added that inquiry solicitor and senior legal adviser Caroline Featherstone had set out these options to the bereaved and survivors, with one online system having been ‘successfully tested’ by barristers. Hearings ‘could be restarted within weeks’ depending on the consultation response, but Ms Featherstone warned that ‘much of the solemnity’ of the inquiry could be lost online, or that witnesses might ‘even cheat with answers fed to them by unseen advisers’.

The option of running a reduced inquiry in person would ‘not be possible until’ Sir Martin was ‘allowed out of the shielded lockdown’ applying to those over 70, though he was said to be ‘keen to restart proceedings’. Ms Featherstone added that to wait for normality to return ‘risks a delay of months and possibly longer’, which was ‘not in the public interest’ because the inquiry was ‘an urgent matter of public safety’.

The online system trialled was Zoom, which she said ‘worked well enough to be able to obtain the evidence required without loss of audio-visual quality, undue interruption or compromising participation […] there is little doubt that the system provides a functionally feasible way of obtaining the oral evidence required.’

However, giving evidence under lockdown may be ‘traumatic’ for witnesses, while there would be no immediate access to an NHS counsellor ‘which might undermine the inquiry’s duty of care to witnesses’, with some finding it ‘difficult’ to keep distractions ‘out of the room’. The inquiry’s view was that only witnesses willing to give evidence remotely should, with some survivors feeling that witnesses ‘would feel less scrutinised giving evidence remotely’.

The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It is expected to last 18 months, with 200,000 documents – including emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation and cladding manufacturers Celotex and Arconic and RBKC) opened proceedings.

‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’. That first week also heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report.

However hearings were delayed due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This move was granted recently, and the inquiry resumedRecently, testimony from Studio E staff admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’, and that it was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.

Recently, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that plans to refurbish the tower were making ‘a crap condition worse’, and ‘no sprinklers [were] wanted’. Studio E’s lead designer Neil Crawford then alleged that Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ and ‘deliberately misled’ over its product’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

Finally, most recently the inquiry heard that contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’, while the last testimony given came from Exova consultant Cate Cooney, who had carried out a fire strategy report in 2012 on Grenfell in its original ‘state’ but ‘without visiting the site itself’, and which included a ‘number of assumptions’.