THE INQUIRY’S oral hearings have been temporarily suspended because of the new national COVID-19 lockdown, with remote hearings hoped to be begun ‘as early as possible’ in February.

Yesterday, it was reported that the inquiry was set to reveal today whether ‘or not’ it could ‘resume as planned’ on Monday 11 January, given the new lockdown, and was ‘considering options for restarting sessions’, which had already been paused in early December due to an individual testing positive for COVID-19.

While yesterday it was not ‘clear whether’ the inquiry ‘may this time consider options for running the inquiry virtually’, because it was suspended during the first national lockdown from mid March to early July 2020, the inquiry team has now confirmed that hearings will be ‘temporarily suspended’ due to the lockdown, with oral hearings not continuing from next Monday.

Noting that this was a ‘difficult decision’, the inquiry team pointed out that ‘the increase in transmissibility of the new variant’ of COVID-19 ‘means that there is a significant increase in the risk of infection facing anyone who travels to and works at the inquiry’s premises, notwithstanding the robustness of the arrangements in place. In the current circumstances it is unreasonable to ask witnesses and inquiry team staff to travel into a particularly high-risk area to attend the inquiry’.

It continued: ‘The panel is keen to maintain the momentum of the phase 2 hearings, and so has made the decision to switch to remote hearings as soon as possible. The panel recognises that the subject of remote hearings was fully explored with core participants last spring during the first 2020 lockdown, and that it was not in favour of that option for the reasons it gave.

‘However, the panel has decided it is better to have remote hearings than no hearings at all while the current restrictions are in place, and wishes to emphasise that this is a temporary measure to be used only for as long as it is absolutely necessary. The inquiry is working with its supplier to make urgent preparations for remote hearings, including safely distributing equipment to witnesses and testing it to ensure that hearings proceed smoothly.

‘The inquiry hopes to start remote hearings as early as possible in February, and will write to core participants as soon as possible to confirm the resumption date and any other details, including how bereaved, survivor and resident core participants will be able to follow the proceedings remotely.’

Earlier this week, it was revealed that politicians including former Prime Minister Theresa May could be cross examined about their actions at the inquiry this year, while Fire Minister Lord Greenhalgh demanded Arconic executives ‘step up’ and testify after refusing.