Covid bereaved demand public inquiry and end to ‘political pantomime’

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Boris Johnson is facing a growing clamour to bring forward the start of the coronavirus public inquiry after relatives of the pandemic’s victims said Dominic Cummings’ allegations had started a “political pantomime” that disrespected those who had died.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, which represents thousands of grieving people, called for an urgent start to the inquiry, which is due to begin in spring 2022.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) joined the call, alongside Lord Kerslake, the former head of the civil service under David Cameron, Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, and Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

On Wednesday, Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, accused the government of being woefully underprepared for the pandemic during seven hours of evidence to MPs, and said Hancock had told repeated lies, leading to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.

Many of the bereaved found Cummings’ litany of claims traumatic and argued that such detailed evidence should be handled in a properly structured public inquiry.

“This political pantomime continues to show a level of disrespect to our lost loved ones and brings us no closer to the answers we need for lives to be saved,” said Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

Their view was fuelled by the response of Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who told the House of Commons on Thursday that “unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true”. Boris Johnson said some claims he had heard did not “bear any relation to reality”.

Kerslake told the Guardian: “We are either going to carry on with this tit-for-tat briefing or we get to grips with the job. We owe it to the families of the bereaved. It’s down to the prime minister. He has to see the sense of doing it early.”

Cummings had also told MPs: “The idea that any kind of serious inquiry and lessons learned doesn’t start until next year is completely terrible. Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.”

The bereaved are coordinating with workers’ and health experts’ organisations to draw up a list of issues the inquiry needs to consider. The government has failed to respond to their lawyer’s request for talks with officials tasked with setting up the inquiry.

Nurses also weighed in, saying that “justice delayed is justice denied”. The RCN said Cummings’ testimony confirmed the need for “a full public inquiry, without delay, into the preparation for and management of Covid-19”.

“That is the only way the government, its agencies and advisers will reflect and learn,” said Dave Dawes, chair of the RCN Council. “The inquiry must examine the decisions made at UK government level and by nations too.”

Davey wrote to the prime minister on Thursday saying “we need [the inquiry] now”. “The chaotic mess of claims, counter-claims, anonymous WhatsApp briefings and cryptic Twitter threads is not the way to establish the truth that the British people – and bereaved families in particular – deserve,” he said.

04:49 Voices of the Covid bereaved: 'Our loved ones aren't just a number' – video

This month Johnson told parliament that an inquiry would start in spring 2022 but said it would be wrong to “weigh down” scientific advisers and take up “huge amounts of officials’ time” during the pandemic.

A government spokesperson said on Wednesday that it would happen “as soon as is reasonably possible” and on Thursday, Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, said next year was “the right moment at which to consider these things in a calm and reflective manner”.

Labour is pushing for a more rapid inquiry. Rayner said: “We need that public inquiry and we need it immediately and for it not to be delayed. We need to learn the lessons … and people need to be confident we have learned those lessons.”

Safiah Ngah, who lost her 68-year-old father, Zahari Ngah, to Covid in February, said: “We can prevent deaths happening next winter if we take the time now to launch the public inquiry.”

She believes the delay in locking down before Christmas caused the death of her father, an NHS psychotherapist for 40 years. He was shielding but contracted Covid in early January. Though he was in good health, her father ended up in intensive care at University College Hospital, London, which he found terrifying.

“It was the peak of the second wave and people were dying around him and he was listening to that every day,” said his daughter. “If there is any argument for a more urgent inquiry it is to prevent that happening to more people. It’s not just that he was only 68, it’s that his last three weeks must have been absolute hell.”

“If we can prevent this happening to more people, why wouldn’t we do that?” she added. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Rebecca Jones and her sister, Jenny Davies, lost their father to Covid on 1 March. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Rebecca Jones, the daughter of Gareth Jones, a retired head teacher who died with Covid on 1 March 2021, said Cummings’ testimony about the government’s “shambolic handling of the pandemic only confirms that the public inquiry must start now”.

“We think the lockdown came too late and if it had been earlier my dad would still be here,” she said. “There was a series of government decisions that led to this suffering. We don’t want any other families to suffer this which is why we want a public inquiry sooner rather than later.

“It is a tragedy what happened to us and so many families and vital lessons must be learned so this isn’t repeated. With the uncertainty with the Indian variant, I don’t understand why as a government you wouldn’t be doing everything in your power to protect people.”

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