Bereaved families call for acceleration of UK Covid inquiry after MPs’ report

Ministers should apologise for poor handling of crisis and loss of lives in pandemic, families say

Bereaved families have called for the Covid public inquiry to be accelerated and for ministers to apologise after a damning report by MPs on the handling of the pandemic.

Dr Cathy Gardner, whose father died from coronavirus after his care home was infected by the discharge of untested patients in March 2020, said the government must appoint a chair for the planned inquiry now rather than by Christmas as Boris Johnson has promised.

The Royal College of Nursing also called for a faster start to the inquiry, while Keir Starmer and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group said ministers must say sorry for their handling of the crisis. “The prime minister should take responsibility because the responsibility is his, and he should apologise,” the Labour leader said.

A first official report on the early handling of the pandemic, published on Tuesday by cross-party MPs, described it as one of the worst public health failures in British history. “Groupthink” by ministers and scientists, including a deliberately slow approach to imposing the first lockdown, led the UK to fare “significantly worse” than other countries, it concluded.

Hours later the Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay refused to apologise, telling the BBC: “The government took decisions at the time based on the scientific advice it received, but those scientists themselves were operating in a very new environment.”

In Wales, the health minister of the devolved government, Eluned Morgan, told a press conference: “I’m prepared to apologise to all those who have suffered during the pandemic. This was a new disease. None of us knew how it would impact, none of us knew how it was going to spread.”

A full statutory public inquiry into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and response is due to start in spring 2022 and will have powers to compel the disclosure of evidence in a way the MPs could not.

The Labour MP Sarah Owen, a member of the Commons health and social care committee which jointly drew up the report, told the Guardian its necessarily limited scope and conclusions, while valuable, showed the need for a full public inquiry as soon as possible to determine “the chain of accountability”.

“It’s clear from our report that mistakes were made,” she said. “But people have a right to know who was responsible for those mistakes, and how we prevent them in the future.”

The Relatives and Residents Association, which represents care home residents and their families, said the report proved they were “abandoned in the early stages of the pandemic and continue to be left behind today”.

“We must urgently learn lessons to ensure older people’s rights are protected now,” said Helen Wildbore, the director. “Waiting until the spring for a public inquiry to start will be too late for too many.”

Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “Had the government taken different decisions, thousands of those lost would still be here today. The very least that should happen is the government should apologise for this – but what families need even more is a rigorous inquiry with bereaved families involved at every single step of the process.”

Gardner said she feared ministers were “hiding” information about their pandemic response after the MPs’ report revealed officials had failed to disclose evidence about how they evaluated South Korea’s more cautious containment strategy, which was not subsequently followed. South Korea has had 2,594 Covid deaths compared with 137,763 so far in the UK, according to official figures.

The MPs’ report also failed to mention the existence of the 2016 cross-government “Exercise Alice” war game for a large outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers) coronavirus. It warned of the need for stockpiles of personal protective equipment, border checks and a ready-made contact tracing system. The health secretary at the time was Jeremy Hunt, who was the joint chair of the MPs’ coronavirus inquiry.

The exercise was attended by Dame Sally Davies, then England’s chief medical officer, and involved senior officials from the Department of Health and Social Care, NHS England, Public Health England and the Cabinet Office.

Asked about his knowledge of the exercise on Tuesday, Hunt said it was “not briefed to ministers”. Appearing on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, he said: “There was a groupthink that the way you tackle a pandemic should be similar to a flu pandemic. I was part of that groupthink too when I was health secretary.”

Contributors

Robert Booth, Peter Walker and Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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