THE INQUIRY’S consultation on ‘how best to resume hearings’ amid the COVID-19 pandemic saw a ‘substantial consensus in favour’ of limited attendance hearings in July by the earliest.
In March, 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. It gave an update on reaching module one of phase two, focusing on refurbishment, and 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 ‘to ensure operations continue’, with support services still in place and drop ins halted. The most recent update 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 were outlined, with core participants and witnesses written to in order to establish their views on three options. These included 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’. Responses were requested to be sent in by 27 April.
It has now reported that it received around 67 responses to the consultation, which ‘indicated a substantial consensus in favour of limited attendance hearings’, with no alternative options suggested from the original three. Having ‘considered carefully’ the responses, the inquiry ‘has come to the clear conclusion’ that the chosen option ‘presents the best way in which the Inquiry can pursue its important work with the necessary urgency’.
Consequently, it is developing a ‘detailed plan for implementing this option’, which would enable hearings to resume ‘safely and in accordance with government guidance’, and it stated that the ‘primary consideration’ will be to protect the ‘physical safety and mental wellbeing of all those involved’, while also getting the programme for taking evidence ‘back on track as soon as possible’.
Views were also sought on counselling support services, with in person counselling support to ‘continue to be available for witnesses’, and the inquiry added that it has ‘been working closely’ with the NHS to ensure ‘they will be in a position to provide this support when hearings resume’, with remote support to continue to be provided as well.
However, the inquiry was keen to note that it ‘cannot yet make any firm prediction about when it will be possible to implement limited attendance hearings as this is dependent on when and how government restrictions are lifted and public health considerations generally’. The earliest it believes it will ‘be possible to resume hearings’ is July, as ‘it is likely to take up to a month to reorganise the Inquiry’s premises in an appropriate way and to reschedule the witnesses for Module 1’.
The inquiry also discussed receiving applications from the bereaved, survivors and resident core participants for funding translations of the full first phase report into various first languages, with Sir Martin concluding that the existing 17 language translations ‘are sufficient in ensuring that all core participants can read and understand the core substance of the report’.
Finally, it noted that as of 15 May it had disclosed 20,752 documents in the first phase and 144,425 in the second phase, for a total of 165,177.
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 resumed. Recently, 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, and most recently before it was suspended, 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’.