Coroner Caroline Sumeray has said that risking lives to investigate a death is not justifiable after being probed on why inquests are not going ahead.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Coroner’s Court has halted with each national lockdown. While a small number of inquests were heard throughout September and October, none have been heard since the November lockdown was enforced.
Guidance from the Chief Coroner said inquests should be done in a safe way and any risks appropriately managed. Elsewhere in the country, inquests have been taking place regularly.
Asked if there were plans to restart inquests on the Island, Mrs Sumeray said the situation was constantly under review with the Isle of Wight Council who were supportive of her position. She said:
“We are still in the middle of a very dangerous pandemic, where the rates of Covid on the Isle of Wight were, until only a few days ago, significantly higher than the national average.”
Inquests on the Island are heard in premises at the combined courts in Newport. With the rooms used by other parties, Mrs Sumeray has said she has ‘no oversight of the cleaning’ carried out between hearings and the room inquests are usually heard in would not comply with government guidance as there are no windows for ventilation.
Inquests are only part of the role the Coroner’s office fulfils and Mrs Sumeray said they had been exceptionally busy in the last year. She also said:
“It is important my small team do not become unwell, as the role of the coroner’s office would grind to a halt, causing immense difficulties for all those who have dealings with us.”
Another reason inquests are being held up is that witnesses from the Isle of Wight NHS Trust are involved, but as they are treating and caring for many people still suffering from the virus, treating the living must be their priority.
Criminal court proceedings have been able to continue during the most recent lockdown and in some cases have sat remotely but the coroner’s court is not permitted to function in that way. Furthermore, Mrs Sumeray said a large number of bereaved the office deal with are elderly and do not have the IT skills and equipment to facilitate remote attendance.
It has not been addressed how the coroner intends to work through the backlog of cases building, with 1 inquest of particular interest, originally due to be held in March 2020, now approaching 2 years since the death occurred.