Nobody will want the top job to lead Scotland’s Covid inquiry, a lawyer has warned.
Professor Peter Watson, who represents some affected families, told STV News the departure of the inquiry’s chair and lead counsel – as well as three other lawyers – was “very surprising”.
Lady Poole KC, the chair of the Scottish inquiry, told deputy first minister John Swinney on Friday that she was stepping down for personal reasons.
It was then revealed on Tuesday that four further members of the inquiry, which was established in February and is independent of the Scottish Government, had also quit.
Professor Watson said: “It is extremely unusual, if not unprecedented, for the chair of an inquiry to resign, as the chair is central to the whole process.
“I received information that the chair had resigned for personal reasons, but then it transpired her departure came after the lead counsel and three others had quit.
“There appears to be some connection between the departures but we do not know what that is. It is also extremely unusual in that you cannot just abandon the process once you have been instructed unless there is a strong, compelling professional reason.
“For senior counsel to withdraw is not a minor matter, it means something substantial must have occurred. The same applies in the case of Lady Poole’s departure, where something must have happened that made it professionally impossible for her to continue as a judge.”
The UK-wide public inquiry, which is looking at how prepared the UK was for the coronavirus pandemic, got under way in London on Tuesday.
It was announced after the separate Scottish equivalent had been confirmed last December.
However, the Scottish inquiry is yet to begin and bereaved relatives say the lack of progress is “deeply worrying” and fear the last ten months may have been wasted.
Swinney will meet with families next week to discuss the situation.
“The UK-wide inquiry is up and running but the Scottish inquiry is stuck in the mud, said Mr Watson. “And it is not going to be easy to find a retired judge to take Lady Poole’s place as there are not that many of them in Scotland.
“In terms of lead counsel, it also won’t be easy to find somebody of the calibre of Douglas Ross, who is a very senior and well-respected lawyer.
“The families are very disappointed as they hoped to have the appointments of core participant status decided, so they can get on with putting in suggested lines that should be investigated.
“It will be hard to find replacements as who would want the job – it’s a hospital pass.”
As of September 18, 2022, 15,702 deaths had been registered in Scotland where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, according to the National Records of Scotland (NRS).
NRS figures include deaths where “suspected” or “probable” Covid-19 appears on the death certificate.
Lawyer Aamer Anwar, representing the Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said that the inquiry had so far “failed to deliver” and “wasted” time.
Anwar issued the statement on behalf of the families, who appeared at the UK Public Inquiry’s first preliminary hearing in London.
“It is ironic and deeply worrying that the UK inquiry set up after Scotland is now under way while Scotland’s inquiry has stalled,” said Anwar.
“The first reaction of the families was dismay and anger at the delay that the Scottish chair’s resignation will cause to Scotland’s Covid-19 inquiry.
“So far it has failed to deliver on the promises made to them and it has wasted too much time.”
Anwar insisted that no institution or government ministers across the UK should be allowed to “escape” robust scrutiny.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “A public inquiry operates independently of ministers. As a result, the procedure, conduct and operation of the inquiry, including staffing and counsel appointments, are matters for the chair.
“The Scottish Government is keen to help ensure the excellent progress made so far by the inquiry is continued. Consequently, work to appoint a new chair is being progressed at pace.
“The deputy first minister has already spoken with the Lord President about arrangements for appointing a new judicial chair.
“Having advised MSPs on Monday he undertook to provide a further update to parliament about a replacement chair at the earliest opportunity.”