County Council health panel concerned voice will not be heard at COVID inquiry

Concern has been expressed that the work of councillors in Oxfordshire County Council tasked with overseeing health will not be considered by the UK COVID-19 Inquiry.

Oxfordshire’s Joint Health Overview & Scrutiny Committee is a panel of county, city and district councillors and independent members who ask questions of and make recommendations to senior figures who commission or deliver health services in the county.

Vice-chair and district councillor Paul Barrow (Lib Dem, Ridgeway, Vale of White Horse) this week raised his “unhappiness” over the possibility, discussed in a briefing prior to the committee’s public meeting, that reports produced by the panel would not form part of the region’s submissions. He was supported by co-opted member Barbara Shaw.

“I just want to note that our understanding is that this is being organised nationally, and I want to register my unhappiness with the fact that, at the moment, it seems unlikely that our two reports, produced in relation to COVID, are going to be included,” he said.

“Hopefully, the discussion will continue, and it might be shifted a little bit.”

Committee chair and county councillor Jane Hanna OBE (Lib Dem, Wantage & Grove) sought to formalise the position – something that was accepted by the committee.

“The understanding of the committee is that the content that will be submitted to the national inquiry from local authorities is nationally directed and coordinated through the Local Government Association (LGA),” she said.

“It is not clear at the moment – it may well be unlikely, but it is not clear – whether content from health scrutiny committees across the country will actually be included in the content that is submitted by local authorities.

“That will depend on the national directions that are coming through. This committee takes an active, ongoing interest in whether the scrutiny reports done by this committee will be able to be submitted to the inquiry.”

Chaired by Baroness Heather Hallett, a former Court of Appeal judge, the UK COVID-19 Inquiry has been set up “to examine the UK’s response to and impact of COVID-19, and learn lessons for the future” from the start of the pandemic through to June 2022.

Part of its remit is to “consider any disparities” when it comes to how COVID impacted different people, “listen to and consider carefully the experiences of bereaved families and others who have suffered hardship or loss”, highlight where “lessons identified from preparedness and the response to the pandemic may be applicable to other civil emergencies” and, where applicable, carry out comparisons with other countries.

There will be a preliminary hearing to look at pandemic preparedness and resilience on Tuesday, 14 February.

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