Grenfell inquiry suspended due to COVID-19

Grenfell inquiry suspended due to COVID-19

CHAIRMAN SIR Martin Moore-Bick has suspended hearings at the inquiry due to the virus outbreak, but noted it is considering ‘electronic means’ to continue.

Sir Martin’s update on the inquiry website came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement on the outbreak, which has now limited UK citizens to essential travel to assuage the impact on the National Health Service. Sir Martin commented that ‘in the light of the Prime Minister’s statement this afternoon the Panel has decided that the Inquiry should hold no further hearings for the time being.

‘To do so, even on the basis of limited attendance, would be to expose those whose presence is essential for that purpose, not to mention those whom we wish to call as witnesses, to an unacceptable risk of infection. It would also send the wrong signal to the world at large at a time when everyone is being urged to cooperate with measures designed to minimise the effect of the virus.

‘We very much regret that it has been necessary to take this step and we shall be giving careful consideration to whether it is possible to resume hearings using electronic means, but even if that is not possible the work of the Inquiry will continue. We shall keep you informed of developments as they occur and I hope that it will not be long before we can continue taking evidence’.

The inquiry had considered ‘shutting out most lawyers and the public’ after panel member Thouria Istephan becme unwell ‘with symptoms similar to coronavirus’, though it was ‘too early to know’ if she had contracted it. Sir Martin had said he was giving ‘serious consideration’ to ‘strictly limiting’ attendance, and noted that the restriction on those aged 70 and over would affect both himself and inquiry lawyer Michael Mansfield.

Prior to this, Warrington Guardian reported on the last testimony given at the hearings from Exova consultant Cate Cooney, who stated that she had carried out a fire strategy report in 2012 on Grenfell Tower in its original ‘state’ but ‘without visiting the site itself’, and that her report included a ‘number of assumptions’.

She undertook her report from Warrington ‘based on microfiche drawings despite them being of “very poor” quality’, as well as relying on information from a colleague who had visited the block, with her draft report – ‘which was not updated’ afterwards – containing ‘assumptions including that Grenfell had been built to the ‘prevailing standards of the day’.

One section marked “evacuation principles” saw her state that ‘due to an assumed high degree of compartmentation and therefore a low probability of fire spread beyond the dwelling of fire origin,  simultaneous evacuation of the building is unlikely to be considered necessary’. She also noted the existing smoke ventilation system was ‘unsatisfactory from a modern perspective’, and ‘should be assessed in order to ensure that a satisfactory level of safety is provided to residents’.

This was because ventilation was ‘critical’ to the tower’s stay put policy, and when asked by inquiry lawyer Richard Millett why she did ‘not explicitly advise that the ventilation system should be completely replaced and updated’, she replied that ‘I think it’s clear in that paragraph that it needs to be assessed to make sure it meets a satisfactory level of performance. I don’t think it’s not clear’.

Despite not being ‘directly involved’ in refurbishing the tower, she had stated in emails that some of the proposed alterations would be ‘making an existing crap condition worse’, while others could be ‘massaged’ to help them ‘satisfy’ building regulations, and also noted that there were approval risks in the refurbishment concerning firefighting shafts and means of escape.

Her witness statement read: ‘My reference to 'massaging' the proposals was to recommending changes to the proposals I had seen regarding the refurbishment to make them satisfactory from a building regulations perspective. The proposals I was referring to were the alterations to the lower four floors, which involved creating new residential accommodation on floors where there had previously been no such accommodation, and changing layouts.’

The second phase began with a focus on decisions ‘taken in the months and years before the fire’, its immediate aftermath and the government’s role. It is expected to last 18 months, with 200,000 documents – including emails, phone transcripts and commercial agreements – to be released. Statements from lawyers for architects Studio E, builders Rydon, installers Harley Facades, insulation and cladding manufacturers Celotex and Arconic and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RKBC) opened proceedings.

‘Key revelations’ included that ‘almost none’ of the clients, consultants or contractors during the refurbishment were ‘accepting much blame’, and ‘ignored pleas from the inquiry not to engage in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”’. That first week also heard refurbishers ‘knew cladding would fail’; witnesses threatened to ‘withhold evidence’; and a consultant was not sent a key report.

However hearings were delayed due to the witnesses’ threat, which saw them ask for assurances that ‘anything they say will not be used in criminal prosecutions against them’. This move was granted recently, and the inquiry resumedRecently, testimony from Studio E staff admitted it ‘lacked experience in cladding tower blocks’, and that it was selected ‘despite never having carried out similar work’, without any ‘competitive procurement process, interview or design competition’.

Recently, emails between senior fire engineers and consultants at Exova Warrington Fire saw admissions that plans to refurbish the tower were making ‘a crap condition worse’, and ‘no sprinklers [were] wanted’. Studio E’s lead designer Neil Crawford then alleged that Celotex ‘calculatedly sought to deceive’ and ‘deliberately misled’ over its product’s safety ‘as if selling horsemeat as beef’.

Finally, most recently the inquiry heard that contractors appeared more concerned about ‘cost and delay’ than fire safety, and on ‘appearance and cost’.