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When will grieving families get inquiry into UK’s Covid response?

Government says immediate investigation into coronavirus errors is ‘not appropriate’

The government has dismissed calls for an urgent public inquiry into the UK’s coronavirus response on the grounds that “the very people who would need to give evidence” are already “working round the clock”.

In a letter to the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group that “appears to kick Boris Johnson’s promise of an inquiry into the long grass”, says The Guardian, the government's legal department argues that “an inquiry now is not appropriate” because ministers and officials are too busy.

And “it is not anticipated that the government's workload will ease in the coming months”, adds the six-page letter, which points to separate  “lessons learnt” inquiries already launched by committees of MPs and the National Audit Office (NAO).

The campaign group for bereaved families - which represents more than 2,800 relatives of people who have died during the pandemic  - has been lobbying Johnson since last summer to launch an urgent independent investigation. 

With Covid infection rates now at the lowest levels since early September and nearly two-thirds of the adult population having received at least one vaccine dose, the families believe that “the launch of an inquiry is long overdue”, says The Guardian.

But government lawyers write that “for now, the government is focused entirely one responding to the pandemic, particularly on the delivery of a safe and effective vaccine whilst taking steps to prepare for the effects of the third wave of the virus currently being experienced in neighbouring countries”. 

What could an inquiry look like?

The prime minister told Parliament last July that an independent inquiry into the Covid response would “certainly” be held “in the future” so that lessons could be learned, as the BBC reported at the time.

But back then, as now, he offered few further details. 

“We don't really know what the prime minister meant when he talked about an independent inquiry,” wrote the BBC’s assistant political editor Norman Smith. 

Whether Johnson had in mind a “full-blown judge-led inquiry” or “a much much lower calibre investigation led by an academic or maybe a select committee” was unclear, Smith continued.

The inquiry might “be of similar stature and authority to the Iraq inquiry”, which was headed by retired senior civil servant Sir John Chilcot and did not include taking evidence under oath.

Whatever Johnson had in mind, the pressure to deliver on his promise ramped up last week when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby publicly demanded immediate action. 

“It has got to be an utterly independent statutory public inquiry, that has complete access, that can call witnesses, subpoena them if necessary and if necessary put them under oath,” Welby told The Guardian

Labour has also called for an immediate “rapid review” followed by “a fuller review in time”, after most of the remaining Covid restrictions in England are lifted in June.

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