The inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster will not resume as planned next Monday and has been delayed until at least the start of next month.
In the wake of the coronavirus lockdown announced by prime minister Boris Johnson this week, the team leading the inquiry into the fire in 2017 fire which killed 72 people has decided that its sessions should not restart until they can be moved online.
A statement released today said: “This was a difficult decision, but the increase in transmissibility of the new variant of coronavirus means that there is a significant increase in the risk of infection facing anyone who travels to and works at the inquiry’s premises, notwithstanding the robustness of the arrangements in place.
“In the current circumstances it is unreasonable to ask witnesses and inquiry team staff to travel into a particularly high-risk area to attend the inquiry.
“The panel is keen to maintain the momentum of the phase two hearings and so has made the decision to switch to remote hearings as soon as possible.”
It added, however, that this will not happen until early next month – at the soonest.
The statement continued: “The panel recognises that the subject of remote hearings was fully explored with core participants last spring during the first 2020 lockdown, and that it was not in favour of that option for the reasons it gave.
“However, the panel has decided it is better to have remote hearings than no hearings at all while the current restrictions are in place, and wishes to emphasise that this is a temporary measure to be used only for as long as it is absolutely necessary.”
The inquiry was paused a week early on 9 December after an individual tested positive for coronavirus. At the time the chairman Martin Moore-Bick said it would start up again on 11 January.
It was suspended during the first national lockdown from mid-March until early July last year.
The decision comes amid growing pressure on three current and former employees of Arconic, the US-owned firm which manufactured the flammable ACM panels used to clad the tower, who were expected to give evidence.
Former executives Claude Wehrle and Peter Froehlich and current employee Gwenaëlle Derrendinger are French citizens and using a previously little-known French “blocking” statute which they say prevents them from giving evidence at a foreign tribunal.
Over the weekend, building safety minister Stephen Greenhalgh called on the three to testify at the inquiry in a post on Twitter.
Arconic has said that it is co-operating with the inquiry and that the witnesses who are resisting an appearance are doing so after seeking their own legal advice.
The inquiry team is also due to make decisions over which ministers and government officials will be called to give evidence in later phases.
A letter from inquiry secretary Mark Fisher to councillors at the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and seen by The Guardian says: “The inquiry is currently in the process of deciding which of them should be called to give evidence in person.”
Fisher said both ministers and officials in relevant government departments had been “asked to provide statements to the inquiry relating to their involvement in the matters under investigation, and have done so”.