A Forfar man has criticised senior judge Lady Poole whose shock decision to quit as chair of the Scottish Covid inquiry left the process in chaos.
Alan Wightman said the outgoing inquiry chief had lacked “empathy” and was making little progress.
His mum Helen died in May 2020 after contracting coronavirus in her care home in Leven, Fife.
Since then, he has led the Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group and been a key voice in getting an independent inquiry set up in Scotland.
But the inquiry stalled after Lady Poole announced she was stepping down, citing personal reasons, shortly before it emerged four other lawyers had resigned.
‘We suffered the greatest loss’
Helen Wightman, who is from Methil, had been staying in Scoonie House in Leven for a number of months when the coronavirus pandemic started in March 2020.
She started to feel unwell on April 20 and passed away on May 6.
She was one of four residents at the care home to die after being infected with the virus.
Her son Mr Wightman, who lived in Forfar at the time of her death, said: “From our perspective Lady Poole has been lacking in any empathy with the bereaved families.
“She had one ‘tick box’, perfunctory meeting with some of us in January and we have had nothing since, despite being promised to be front and centre.
“Lady Poole didn’t seem to understand that.
“The bereaved suffered the greatest loss during the pandemic.”
He added Baroness Hallett, who is heading up the UK-wide Covid inquiry, has met Scottish families and they felt “listened to and shown empathy” by her.
Mr Wightman added: “By contrast nothing has happened in Scotland and now Lady Poole has gone.
“I don’t know where that leaves the inquiry – is it dead in the water?”
He said it is a “good thing” she has left the inquiry, and questioned: “Why did it take so long for others to realise she was not up to the job?
“We had that sussed out back in January.”
One and only meeting was ‘disastrous’
Aamer Anwar, the solicitor representing the Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, was told about the resignations by a civil servant only hours before it was made public.
He said he was on his way to London at the time to attend a meeting of the UK-wide Covid inquiry.
Mr Anwar added: “My clients are dismayed and worried.
“The writing appeared to be on the wall when there was little to no contact with the families I represent in the last 10 months.
“We had one meeting which was disastrous.”
He said he also has concerns the resignations in Scotland will also cause delays to the UK-wide inquiry.
Mr Wightman added: “I really don’t want this to impact on the UK inquiry and everything Baroness Hallett has done to make it a success – I don’t want Scotland to screw that up for her.”
Swinney promises answers
Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, raised the resignations in Holyrood and demanded to know how bereaved families will be treated.
She also said the Scottish Government must detail when the inquiry will get back up and running, what the revised costs of the inquiry now are, and what is being done to secure a replacement for Lady Poole.
Covid-19 Recovery Secretary John Swinney told her the bereaved families “will be at the heart of this process” and must have their concerns properly aired and answered.
However he said he was not able to answer her other questions without breaking the Independent Inquiries Act.
He said Lady Poole told him on September 30 that she had resigned and that four other lawyers had resigned the day before.
Mr Swinney said he “considered carefully” whether to share this information and concluded it was an “exclusive matter” for the inquiry chair.
Lady Poole’s resignation was then made public on October 3 but at that point no public statement was made on the other four resignations.
Ms Baillie has since branded Mr Swinney’s response “arrogant and dismissive” and “an insult to those worrying about the progress of this vital inquiry”.
Replacement needs ‘experience and clout’
The Scottish Government said work to appoint a new chair is “being progressed at pace”.
Mr Wightman said her replacement needs to be someone with “experience and clout” and someone who puts the bereaved families “front and centre”.
He said: “It’s OK if it takes a bit longer to get the right person – I don’t want a hurried appointment just to fill the post, I want it to be a good appointment.
“It is a mess, but with the right will and attention, it is a mess that can be fixed and brought back on track.”
We contacted the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry to ask why the resignations happened and why the public were not informed until almost a week later.
We also asked if there are implications for openness and transparency, and for reaction to Mr Wightman and Mr Anwar’s criticism of Lady Poole.
The inquiry team declined to comment.