UK’s Johnson urged to bring forward inquiry into pandemic

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Boris Johnson

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street for a debate on the Queen Speech at House of Commons in London, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Wednesday that an independent public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic will start hearing evidence next year. While welcoming the announcement, a leading group representing the bereaved thinks it should begin sooner.

Johnson told lawmakers that the inquiry will have wide-ranging statutory powers and that the government has a responsibility to learn lessons from the pandemic after more than 127,500 died as a result of the coronavirus, Europe’s highest death toll.

He said he expects the inquiry to begin its work next spring and that it will have the power to compel the production of all relevant materials and to take oral evidence under oath. The inquiry’s chair and terms of reference will be made clear before then, he added.

“Our country, like every country, has found itself in the teeth of the gravest pandemic for a century, imposing heart-breaking sorrow on families across the world,” he said. Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future.”

The announcement was generally welcomed by opposition parties though Labour Party leader Keir Starmer questioned why it couldn’t be held sooner.

And the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice U.K. group, which has been pressing Johnson to back an inquiry, said his announcement has been “a long time coming” and that it should start sooner than 2022.

“It sounds like common sense when the prime minister says that an inquiry can wait until the pandemic is over, but lives are at stake with health experts and scientists warning of a third wave later this year,” said the group’s co-founder Jo Goodman, who lost her 72-year-old father Stuart last April, just days after he tested positive for the virus.

“A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter,” she added.

For around a year, Johnson has resisted appeals to call for an inquiry since last summer, arguing that the time wasn’t right. He reiterated on Wednesday that now wasn’t the right time because many front-line workers are still dealing with the pandemic and concerns over new variants remain.

Critics have argued that the country was badly underprepared for dealing with a pandemic, pointing to a lack of personal protective equipment and a perceived underfunding of crucial public health provisions.

Most importantly, they also argue that Johnson was too slow in putting the country into lockdown on three occasions, particularly last March at the outset of the pandemic and at the start of this year after a new, more contagious variant first identified in southeast England became dominant.

The delays, many argue, led to the U.K. recording the fifth-highest virus-related death toll in the world, despite the valiant efforts of people working in the National Health Service, which has endured its most difficult period since its creation just after World War II.

Critics also say the delays meant the British economy ended up contracting more than it should have as restrictions ended up lasting for longer. Figures earlier showed that the British economy remains nearly 9% smaller than it was on the eve of the pandemic.

One aspect of the government’s handling of the pandemic has won general plaudits. The rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been speedy and has helped keep a lid on infections, allowing the government to ease restrictions sooner than many other countries have been able to. Around 54% of the U.K. population have received at least one dose of vaccine with around a quarter having got two jabs.

Johnson also told lawmakers that a commission on a commemoration of the pandemic will be established and that he backs a plan for a memorial at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

“There is a solemn duty on our whole United Kingdom to come together and to cherish the memories of those who have been lost,” he said.

Johnson said he had been “deeply moved” when visiting the COVID Memorial Wall opposite Parliament, which was made up of 150,000 hearts to commemorate people who have died. The official government death toll only counts those who tested positive for the virus and only includes those who died within 28 days of testing positive.

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