LONDON — The official U.K. probe into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is on course to cost more than £85 million before it's even begun to take evidence.
The total maximum sum for contracts agreed so far suggests the inquiry could become the most expensive in British history, topping the Bloody Sunday investigation, which cost almost £200 million over more than a decade.
"We're never going to have seen a public inquiry this extensive, because the pandemic has touched everybody in the country in some way and almost every institution in the country in some way," said Emma Norris, director of research at the Institute for Government think tank.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to launch the probe after the U.K. ended up with the 28th worst death rate in the world per 100,000 inhabitants and suffered a deep economic hit. The investigation has begun its initial work but is not expected to start taking full evidence until the start of 2023.
The inquiry itself has been amassing a legal team, while government departments have begun contracting out legal support to help them defend their conduct during the crisis, as well as communication work and data handling.
According to an analysis using the Tussell government procurement database, the government has agreed 22 contracts with 18 different private firms worth a total of £85.3 million.
For example, the Department for Health and Social Care, which sent untested patients from hospitals into care homes at the start of the crisis, causing a wave of deaths in the sector, has agreed a legal support contract worth up to £2 million with law firm Pinset Masons.
The Department for Education agreed a legal advice contract with DWF worth up to £5 million, after then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson faced criticism for his handling of classroom attendance measures and disruption of the school exam system.
And the Department for International Trade took out a contract with Gowling WLG worth up to £3.6 million, for legal advice on its role in the desperate scramble for pandemic equipment from overseas.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet Office agreed to hand over almost £10 millionto Burges Salmon up to late 2026 to give legal advice to the official inquiry team.
A spokesperson for the Government Legal Department said: “The government’s work on the COVID Inquiry requires significant legal support which departments will procure at their own discretion from approved internal and external sources. All appointments represent value for money and ensure that the Inquiry can fulfil its remit.”
A 2026 end date seems optimistic, given the Chilcot probe into the Iraq War took eight years, despite it touching fewer aspects of government than the pandemic. But Norris, from the Institute for Government, said the investigation team was aware of the "real trade-off" between an extensive inquiry and one that lasts too long to prompt change.
But she added: "I certainly don't think that this is the end of procurement for the public inquiry. This is the beginning rather than the end."
Elsewhere, the government is lining up outside help for its media response to the inquiry. For example, the Home Office has spent almost half a million pounds on a "strategic communications" contract, while the Crown Commercial Service has sought out monitoring for press, broadcast and social media.
Spending on contracts for the probe began in October 2021 and has ramped up in the past few months. The biggest spenders are the Crown Commercial Service, the Government Legal Department and the Cabinet Office, all of which secure contracts for other parts of government too.