Limited attendance will be permitted but not until July at earliest
The Grenfell Inquiry has announced it is to resume hearing evidence – with physical hearings rather than by video conferencing.
The sessions won’t start until July at the earliest, after the third anniversary of the fire on June 14, 2017 which claimed 72 lives. The timing will depend on a relaxation of government guidance on social distancing.
The inquiry into the tragedy was suspended abruptly on March 16 when the prime minister announced non-essential contact must be avoided because of coronavirus and that the over-70s should isolate, a category that includes inquiry chairman Michael Moore-Bick and barrister Michael Mansfield.
The inquiry had just started hearing evidence from fire safety specialist Exova after two weeks of evidence from past and current members of staff at tower refurbishment architect Studio E. Project architect Bruce Sounes is yet to complete his evidence after twice being taken ill.
That morning Moore-Bick had also announced that specialist panel member Thouria Istephan, a Foster & Partners staffer, was self-isolating after being taken ill with covid-19-like symptoms.
In April the inquiry secretariat wrote to core participants asking for their views on how best to resume the hearings. It suggested three options: wait until social restrictions have been lifted completely; conduct hearings remotely via video links; or resume physical hearings with limited attendance once restrictions are lifted partially.
The secretariat issued a statement yesterday revealing that it had received 67 replies, with what it described as a “substantial consensus” in favour of the third option. No alternative options were suggested by respondents.
The statement said: “Having considered carefully the responses to the consultation letter the panel has come to the clear conclusion that option 3 presents the best way in which the inquiry can pursue its important work with the necessary urgency.”
It is now developing a detailed plan for how to safely resume hearings at the inquiry’s offices on Bishop’s Bridge Road in Paddington, west London.
“The primary consideration in these preparations will be to protect the physical safety and mental wellbeing of all those involved while getting the inquiry’s programme for taking evidence back on track as soon as possible,” said the statement.
Face-to-face and remote counselling would continue to be available for participants, it added.
“The panel 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 the panel considers 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.”
It said the inquiry’s work on other phase two modules had continued through the suspension, with all inquiry team members working remotely.
The report on phase one of the inquiry, focusing on the events of June 14, 2017, was published in autumn 2019.
Phase two is looking at the events surrounding the refurbishment work and is expected to run for 18 months.