U.K. to Hold Public Inquiry Into Pandemic From Spring 2022

A full public inquiry will be launched from spring next year into how the U.K. government handled the coronavirus pandemic, after the country registered the highest death toll in Europe.

The independent investigation into the state’s response must wait until after a likely resurgence of the disease over the winter, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

“It is absolutely vital for the sake of the bereaved. for the sake of the whole country, that we should understand exactly what happened, that we should learn the lessons,” Johnson told Members of Parliament. “We owe it to the country to produce answers within a reasonable timescale.”

The inquiry will be on a statutory basis and be able to compel the “production of all relevant materials and take all evidence in public, under oath”, he said.

But Johnson immediately faced questions over the delay. The main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer asked why the inquiry couldn’t begin later this year.

Political Risk

A public inquiry -- which Johnson has long promised -- carries significant political risk for the prime minister. The U.K. has suffered one of the worst death tolls from coronavirus in the world, with more than 127,000 fatalities recorded.

Johnson’s government has faced criticism that it waited too long to impose lockdowns, failed to protect care homes in the early stages of the pandemic, and did not ensure sufficient stocks of protective equipment for health workers. Allegations of cronyism surrounding contracts for healthcare equipment have also been levied at the government by opposition lawmakers and the U.K. media.

The premier’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings has described the Department of Health and Social Care as a “smoking ruin” when the pandemic hit. He told a parliamentary committee in March there should be an “urgent, very, very hard look” into what went wrong in government.

Winter Surge

Johnson said it was right to delay the inquiry to next spring because “the end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic.”

The government has laid out a roadmap that would see all restrictions largely dropped by June 21 at the earliest. Johnson said it’s the government’s intention to lift its work from home guidance at that point, “provided we stay on track.”

Still, the prime minister warned that the U.K. faced “the persistent threat of new variants” which had the potential to “cause even greater suffering than we endured in January.”

“And there is in any case a high likelihood of a surge this winter when the weather assists the transmission of all respiratory diseases and the pressure on our NHS is most acute,” he said.

Separately, he backed plans for a memorial for victims of Covid-19 in St Paul’s Cathedral, and announced the creation of a “U.K. Commission on Covid Commemoration” to remember loved ones and honor people’s heroism and kindness.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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