Boris Johnson was today coming under pressure to bring forward an independent public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic, after he announced that it will not start until the spring of 2022 and refused to set a date for its conclusion.
Bereaved families said that a year was too long to wait for the probe to start, while senior parliamentarians insisted that it must at least issue an interim report before the next general election to ensure voters are fully informed when they go to the polls.
Meanwhile, there were demands for the findings of an internal government “lessons learned” review of the pandemic response to be made public.
And the chair of the Commons Science Committee, Greg Clark, told The Independent that health secretary Matt Hancock will give evidence in front of the TV cameras on 10 June to the separate coronavirus inquiry being conducted jointly with the Health Committee.
A poll for The Independent found overwhelming public support for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, with 59 per cent saying there should be a probe – and 25 per cent saying it should start immediately – against just 30 per cent who thought there should not.
The prime minister told the House of Commons that the inquiry will place “the state’s actions under the microscope” and will have powers to compel the production of documents and take evidence from witnesses under oath.
Downing Street made clear that Mr Johnson himself is ready to be questioned on oath before the TV cameras for several days if necessary, telling reporters that he would “conform” with whatever the inquiry demanded of him.
The PM’s official spokesperson made clear that the investigation – called under the 2005 Inquiries Act – could drag on for years, insisting that it would be for its chair to determine how much time is needed.
The comment sparked concerns that its findings may not be revealed ahead of the election, which is currently due to take place in 2024 but is likely to be brought forward to 2023 as Mr Johnson abolishes the five-year parliamentary fixed term.
Other inquiries under the act are currently ongoing after as long as six years, and Dame Deirdre Hine, who led the independent review into the 2009 swine flu outbreak, said she does not expect the coronavirus inquiry to report back in less than two to three years due to the “ground it has to cover”.
A co-founder of the Bereaved Families for Justice group, Jo Goodman – who lost her father Stuart to Covid – said it was “a huge relief” that Mr Johnson had committed to a statutory inquiry after months of families demanding one.
But she said preparations should begin immediately, warning: “Spring 2022 is simply too late to begin… Lives are at stake with health experts and scientists warning of a third wave later this year.
“A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter.”
Ms Goodman said it was vital that the inquiry should involve bereaved families from the start, including in the choice of a chair and the drafting of the terms of reference.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, who first got Mr Johnson to agree to some sort of investigation in parliament in July last year, said that the inquiry should be given “the time it needs to gather all the evidence and leave no stone unturned” but that it must produce interim reports to ensure findings are made public in a timely fashion.
“There are some urgent questions that need answering to avoid the government repeating its mistakes and prevent more unnecessary deaths,” Sir Ed told The Independent.
“That’s why the Liberal Democrats are calling for the inquiry to start immediately – not wait until next year – and be asked to produce an interim report by the end of this year.”
Davey also called for bereaved families to be involved in drawing up the inquiry’s remit, to avoid a repeat of the experience of relatives of victims of the Hillsborough tragedy who were forced to campaign for decades to get justice.
Green MP Caroline Lucas, vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on coronavirus, said there was “a clear democratic case for publishing the inquiry’s interim findings before the next election, so that ministers can be held to account at the ballot box”.
She warned that the mooted year’s delay risked letting the government “off the hook for the catastrophic mistakes made in the early stages of the pandemic”.
Today’s Savanta ComRes poll made clear that voters believe the Johnson administration’s handling of the crisis was at its worst in the first weeks and months after the discovery of the novel virus in China in late 2019.
Just 35 per cent of those questioned felt the government had responded effectively to the initial outbreak, compared to 41 per cent who said it had not.
Some 37 per cent said it had performed badly at keeping down the UK death toll – at 128,000 currently the fifth highest of any country in the world – compared to 35 per cent who said it had done well.
On other measures, the public gave greater credit to the government’s record, with 71 per cent approving of its performance on vaccination, 58 per cent on supporting jobs and businesses and 51 per cent on providing the NHS with the resources it needed.
Despite three national lockdowns in England, 40 per cent said the government had done well in minimising disruption to everyday life, against 30 per cent who disagreed.
Announcing the planned inquiry in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said it must be able to look at the events of the last year “in the cold light of day” and identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future.
It will be “free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players and analyse and learn from the breadth of our response,” he said.
“I think we owe it to the country to have as much transparency as we possibly can and we owe it to the country to produce answers in a reasonable timescale.”
A commission on Covid commemoration is also to be established to help remember those who lost their lives during the pandemic, with the PM voicing his support for a permanent memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said the government should not “kick the can down the road to spring 2022”, declaring: “That is too late for the families and to start learning the lessons.”
But Mr Johnson warned of the danger of a further flare-up of the disease later in the year, telling MPs it “would not be right to devote the time of people who are looking after us, who are saving lives, to an inquiry before we can be absolutely, much more certain than we are now that the pandemic is behind us”.
Meanwhile, another coronavirus APPG vice-chair, Labour MP Clive Lewis, called on the government to “come clean” and release the lessons-learned review immediately, to avoid allegations of a cover-up.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and nowhere is that more true than the government’s handling of this pandemic,” said Mr Lewis.
• Savanta ComRes questioned 2,152 British adults between 7 and 9 May.