Covid families accuse PM of breaking pledge to involve them in choosing inquiry head

Covid families accuse PM of breaking pledge to involve them in choosing inquiry head
Exclusive: Prime minister also vowed post would be filled by Christmas – now just one month away

Families of Covid victims are accusing Boris Johnson of breaking a pledge to involve them in choosing the head of the planned public inquiry, after weeks of silence.

In September, the prime minister finally met with the families – after refusing to do for almost 400 days – and agreed to give them a “clear role” in both the inquiry’s terms of reference and in selecting its chair.

Mr Johnson also vowed the chair would be in place by Christmas, a move seen as crucial to the probe getting underway next spring, when it will already be two years since the pandemic struck.

But the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group says it has heard nothing from Downing Street in the eight weeks since, prompting mounting anger among its members.

The clock is now ticking, with just three weeks until parliament packs up for the Christmas and New Year break, on 16 December.

Lobby Akinnola, the group’s spokesperson, said: “We met with Boris Johnson less than two months ago and he looked us in the eye and promised us that a chair would be appointed by Christmas and that we would be consulted.

“So why is the prime minister ghosting us? Christmas is such a difficult time for those of us who have lost loved ones to the virus.”

Why is the prime minister ghosting us? Christmas is such a difficult time for those of us who have lost loved ones to the virus

Lobby Akinnola, Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice

The failure to consult is the latest controversy surrounding the inquiry, which Mr Johnson has repeatedly refused to launch since calls were first made in the summer of 2020.

He argued it would distract officials from the task of keeping coronavirus under control – even though all legal restrictions were lifted in England in July and none have been reimposed.

The prime minister has been accused of trying to delay what are expected to be the inquiry’s highly critical findings until after the next general election, which could be as late as 2024.

Even if the inquiry does begin in the spring, that is merely the deadline for the process to get underway – meaning actual evidence hearings are further off.

Earlier this month, it was revealed that a private firm running the much-criticised test and trace system has been handed a government contract to prepare “evidence” for the inquiry.

Mr Akinnola urged Mr Johnson to do “the decent thing” by talking with the group now, adding: “With Christmas now just a month away, the government needs to consult with us immediately.”

In May, Mr Johnson finally dropped his opposition to setting a timetable for the inquiry, telling MPs it would get underway – but not for another year.

It would be fully independent and have “the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public, under oath”, he pledged.

But he added: “We must not inadvertently divert or distract the people on whom we depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease.

“I expect that the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period, in the spring of next year, spring 2022.”

Because it is being set up under the 2005 Inquiries Act, the government has control of the appointment of the panel and its chair, including whether that person is a judge.

However, in September, when Mr Johnson met the families, he “explicitly acknowledged the importance of ensuring that bereaved families are at the heart of learning lessons”, they said afterwards.

Their statement read: “The prime minister must appoint a chair as soon as possible and he must stick to his commitment to bereaved families having a role in deciding the chair and the terms of reference.

“We hope that we can accept the prime minister’s commitments in good faith and, going forward, that there will be ongoing and meaningful dialogue with bereaved families.”

The prime minister also described the wall of 150,000 hand-drawn red hearts, opposite the Houses of Parliament, as a “strong candidate” to become the pandemic’s official memorial, the group said.

Downing Street has been asked to respond to the claim that it is failing to consult with the group, as promised.

Opposition parties want the inquiry to explore the puny financial support for people forced to isolate because of Covid, the handing out of lucrative contracts to firms run by Tory allies and the test and trace failures.

An inquiry by two Commons committees found, last month, that delaying lockdown and failing to protect elderly and vulnerable people in care caused thousands of avoidable deaths.