Britain to launch public inquiry into COVID-19 response

Agence France-Presse

Posted at May 12 2021 09:05 PM

A full, independent public inquiry into the British government's handling of its response to the coronavirus pandemic will be held early next year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday.

The country had "found itself in the teeth of the gravest pandemic for a century" and the state has "an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future", he told lawmakers.

Britain has been hit hard by the outbreak, with more than 127,000 deaths since March last year -- the world's fifth highest official toll, according to data collected by AFP -- raising questions about why it has fared worse than other nations.

Johnson told parliament the inquiry would be established on a "statutory basis", with oral evidence given under oath and powers to "compel the production of all relevant materials".

He added he expected the inquiry, which is likely last over a year, will begin in the spring of 2022. 

The government in London will work with the UK's devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to determine the scope of the inquiry. 

Johnson's government has rebuffed months of calls for a wide-reaching investigation into its handling of the pandemic, saying it would hamper the ongoing response.

But months of lockdown restrictions are being eased, and the number of cases of Covid-19 and deaths has fallen sharply, as a mass vaccination campaign continues apace.

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer called for the inquiry to start "as soon as possible".

Johnson, however, said the start had to be delayed so it did not "weigh down the efforts of those engaged in protecting us every day". 

The events of the last year needed to be looked at in the "cold light of day", he added.

Johnson's leadership has come under particular scrutiny since the start of the outbreak.

He has been accused of being too slow to impose a nationwide lockdown measures to contain the virus at the outset, and too fast to lift restrictions once the first wave passed.

There were also initial problems with the supply of protective equipment to frontline workers, testing capacity, and glitches in an app to trace Covid contacts. 

Johnson has denied that he dismissed the prospect of a wave of Covid-19 deaths, after reports he had said he would rather see "bodies pile high in their thousands" than impose a third coronavirus lockdown.

Ultimately, Johnson did order a new round of restrictions in January.

Johnson's former top aide Dominic Cummings has publicly called into question his ex-boss' judgement at key moments during the pandemic.

He is due to give evidence to a separate parliamentary inquiry into the government's Covid response later this month.