THE INQUIRY will resume hearing oral evidence ‘on a limited attendance basis’ from Monday 6 July.
In March, the inquiry discussed plans to resume hearings remotely, after chairman Sir Martin Moore-Bick suspended them due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A later update noted that ‘the work of the Inquiry continues’, and ‘potential options’ were outlined, with core participants and witnesses asked for their views on three options.
These included suspending hearings until social restrictions ‘have been lifted’; conducting them remotely via video conferencing; or resuming with limited attendance ‘when social restrictions are partially lifted’. In late May, it received responses that ‘indicated a substantial consensus in favour of limited attendance hearings’, and had ‘come to the clear conclusion’ that this ‘present[ed] the best way in which the Inquiry can pursue its important work with the necessary urgency’.
Consequently, it was developing a ‘detailed plan for implementing this’ and enabling hearings to resume ‘safely and in accordance with government guidance’. The earliest it believed it would ‘be possible to resume’ was July, as ‘it [was] likely to take up to a month to reorganise the Inquiry’s premises in an appropriate way and to reschedule the witnesses’.
Most recently, it was ‘working towards’ resuming on Monday 6 July, and was ‘proceeding on the basis that the current restrictions will remain in place’. Hearings would ‘only resume if it is safe to do so’ and if proceedings remained ‘consistent with the available guidance’ as well as the ‘easing of restrictions’.
The ‘primary concern is the health, safety and wellbeing of all those who would need to attend’, and it had been working alongside contractors ‘to put arrangements in place so that a limited number of attendees’ can use the premises ‘safely and in line with government guidelines’. A ‘thorough’ risk assessment process was undertaken by the Government Property Agency ‘to ensure compliance with all health and safety requirements’ as well.
In order for arrangements to be ‘effective’, it would ‘need to begin by restricting attendance’ to panel members, counsel and witnesses as well as their legal representatives ‘and any person providing immediate support’, alongside inquiry staff and contractors ‘critical to the operation of the hearings’. A member of the Press Association would attend ‘to enable first-hand reporting and assist in making the process as transparent as possible’.
Hearings would ‘continue to be streamed online’ and remote wellbeing support services would ‘continue to be available’. Attendance numbers will be kept ‘under constant review’, with the inquiry ‘particularly keen’ for the bereaved, survivors and residents ‘to return when possible, but their safety must be our overriding concern and it is too early to suggest when or how that might be possible’.
In its latest update, the inquiry said it has ‘made preparations in order to protect everyone involved’, and ‘ensure that their safety is in no way compromised by the wider desire to continue’ by maintaining social distancing and ‘managing touch points’.
It was clear that ‘the consensus’ was that it ‘should begin taking evidence in limited attendance hearings’, and being an inquiry ‘concerned with building safety, they also know the particular importance of taking health and safety guidance extremely seriously’.
As guidance remains that a two metre distance is ‘preferable’, and as a number attending ‘are either vulnerable themselves or live with those who are vulnerable’ - with the ‘nature of proceedings mean[ing] attendees will be within the building together for a protracted period’ the inquiry ‘must, therefore, be especially careful’, with witnesses’ attendance in person, ‘important to everyone, […] in large part dependent on their trust’ in the precautions taken.
The venue has been ‘significantly reconfigured’, and while ‘relatively straightforward to maintain social distancing in the hearing room’, this is ‘more challenging’ at break times – so the more people ‘in attendance’, the ‘greater the risk to all those present’. Temporary changes allow for breaks ‘at a safe distance’, and numbers ‘must be restricted to those whose physical attendance is essential for hearings’.
As government guidance is updated, the inquiry ‘will of course review its arrangements’, but is ‘duty-bound to ensure’ social distancing is ‘facilitated in all areas of the building at all time’, because ‘unnecessary risks cannot be taken’. While the restrictions are ‘regrettable’, it ‘would be remiss of the Inquiry with its responsibility for the health and safety of those present to do anything less’.
A provisional schedule was to be made available at the end of each week, while legal representatives for core participants can suggest questions for witnesses to the inquiry counsel ‘or raise points as necessary via email during the live hearings’. As a result, the panel ‘will ensure that adequate breaks are taken’ to enable the counsel to ‘collate and consider’ any questions ‘and decide whether they should be put to the witness’.
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. ‘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”’. The first week 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 witnesses asking for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This was granted, and the inquiry resumed. The inquiry also acknowledged that Sir Martin had written to Attorney General Suella Braverman to ‘request an extension’ in late April, and she extended the ruling.
After the agreement had been made, testimony from Studio E staff admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’ and was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.
Later, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that refurbishment plans 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’.
Most recently, contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’, while Exova consultant Cate Cooney had carried out a fire strategy report in 2012 on Grenfell in its original ‘state’ but ‘without visiting the site itself’, and included a ‘number of assumptions’.