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The Grenfell Tower public inquiry has been suspended until at least next month, due to rising Covid-19 infections in London. The move threatens to delay its conclusions until well into 2022 and slows down the prospect of criminal prosecutions.
The inquiry team examining the 14 June 2017 disaster was hit by a spate of infections before Christmas, but its chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, 74, had planned to resume oral evidence sessions on Monday 11 January. Witnesses for Arconic, the company that made the combustible cladding panels which were the main cause of fire spread were due to be cross-examined. A total of 72 people died as a result of the fire at the west London council tower block.
The inquiry said in a statement: “The increase in transmissibility of the new variant of coronavirus means 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.”
The inquiry, based in central London, had been operating in person but with minimal attendance. The three-strong inquiry panel, witnesses and lawyers for the inquiry were the only people at the premises, along with a support team. Bereaved people and survivors and their lawyers had been following proceedings on a public YouTube broadcast.
The inquiry said it wanted to restart the inquiry in February with remote hearings using computer links. The bereaved and survivors have previously opposed that, saying it was important that executives working for the construction companies responsible for the refurbishment faced sometimes tough cross-examination from counsel to the inquiry in person. There were fears that witnesses giving evidence via computer link could be coached in their answers.
“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,” the panel said. “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.”
It said it was to distribute computer equipment to witnesses and test it before hearings restarted.
“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,” the inquiry said.