Bereaved families and those who suffered will be at the heart of the UK's Covid-19 public inquiry, its chairwoman has said, as she promised to be "fair" and "thorough".

Former Court of Appeal judge Baroness Heather Hallett opened the inquiry in London saying she planned to investigate the UK's preparedness for a pandemic, the Government's response, and its impact on patients, NHS and social care staff and the public.

A minute's silence was held for those who lost their lives, with Ms Hallett saying: "There's one word that sums up the pandemic for so many, and that is the word 'loss'.

"Although there were positive aspects of the pandemic, for example, the way in which communities banded together to help each other and the vulnerable, millions of people suffered loss, including the loss of friends and family members; the loss of good health - both mental and physical; economic loss; the loss of educational opportunities and the loss of social interaction.

"Those who are bereaved lost the most.

"They lost loved ones and the ability to mourn properly."

Ms Hallett said the inquiry would analyse how the Covid pandemic unfolded and would determine whether the "level of loss was inevitable or whether things could have been done better".

She added: "My principal aim is to produce reports and recommendations before another disaster strikes the four nations of the UK and, if it is possible, to reduce the number of deaths, the suffering and the hardship.

"I have a duty to the public to conduct a thorough, fair and independent inquiry for the whole of the UK and I intend to do so."

The former judge promised that the inquiry would "not drag on for decades, producing reports when it is too late for them to do any good".

She added: "I promised the bereaved during the consultation process on the terms of reference that those who have suffered will be at the heart of the inquiry and I intend to keep that promise."

A Covid-19 memorial wall in London

But, addressing some issues raised by bereaved families, she said she would not be able to cover every issue people wanted covering or every issue in as much detail "as some may wish".

She assured families that "no decision will be taken lightly", as she also promised to look at the use of do-not-resuscitate orders in the NHS and the quality of care given to people.

Families have expressed fears they could be sidelined in the inquiry if they are able to share their experiences only through a Listening Project, which was established so members of the public can take part without formally giving evidence or attending a hearing.

Ms Hallett said some people will be given core participant status, which gives them the right to the disclosure of documentation, the right to be represented and make legal submissions, suggest questions and receive advance notice of the inquiry's report.

She added that the proposed listening exercise "is to ensure that everyone across the UK who wishes to contribute to the inquiry can do so in a less formal setting...

"The fact that someone contributes to the listening exercise will not prevent them from giving evidence at the public hearings of the inquiry if they have relevant evidence to give.

"I have taken no decisions as yet on the witnesses to be called so no-one has been barred from giving evidence."

The inquiry is so wide-ranging that it has been split into three modules, with more to be announced.

Module 1 will examine the resilience and preparedness of the UK for a coronavirus pandemic.

Module 2 will examine decisions taken by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, as advised by the civil service, senior political, scientific and medical advisers, and relevant committees.

Module 3 will investigate the impact of Covid on healthcare systems, including on patients, hospitals and other healthcare workers and staff.

The inquiry is expected to last at least a year, with the first evidence sessions starting in spring 2023.

Today's hearing is largely procedural although bereaved families are expected to make a statement later on.

'Deeply worrying' that UK Covid-19 inquiry has started but not Scottish one

Meanwhile, a solicitor representing Scottish families bereaved by Covid-19 has said it is "ironic and deeply worrying" that a UK inquiry is under way while Scotland's probe "appears to have stalled".

Aamer Anwar, a solicitor acting on behalf of Scottish Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, gave a statement after Ms Hallett opened the UK Covid-19 inquiry earlier.

He said the families welcome the approach of the UK inquiry but feel "dismay and anger" after Anna Poole, the judge appointed to chair the independent public inquiry in Scotland, gave notice of her intention to step down from the key post for personal reasons.

He said: "Today our legal teams appeared at the UK inquiry's first preliminary hearing.

"Module 1 is designed to investigate the United Kingdom's resilience and preparedness, or lack thereof, the inquiry will be into high-level decision making and systemic issues and failures.

"In our submissions to Baroness Hallett, chair of the UK inquiry, we stated over the last two years the families we represent have campaigned for a robust, independent and transparent public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

"The families welcome the approach of Baroness Hallett and her inquiry in assuring them that their voices will be heard at the UK inquiry.

"Today is the start of a process and the grieving families hope that this public inquiry will be an effective and credible mechanism to ensure what happened to them will not happen again.

"It is ironic and deeply worrying that the UK inquiry set up after Scotland is now under way while Scotland's inquiry appears to have stalled.

"The first reaction of the families was dismay and anger at the delay that the Scottish chair's resignation yesterday will cause to Scotland's Covid-19 inquiry, so far it has failed to deliver on the promises made to them.

"Any new judge chairing the Scottish Covid-19 public inquiry must be robust, independent and with sufficient experience to carry out their role without interference from anyone.

"Today, however, we welcome the UK inquiry's determination to expose culpable conduct, identify wrong decisions and judgments made, and ensure that lessons are learnt properly.

"The families we represent have fought for truth, transparency and accountability.

"No institution or minister of Government - whether they be Scottish, Welsh, UK or Northern Irish - should be allowed to escape robust scrutiny."

The Scottish inquiry was established by the Scottish Government and will run alongside the UK-wide inquiry.