British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that an independent public inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be held next year.
He told politicians on Wednesday 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 people died as a result of the coronavirus, Europe’s highest death toll.
“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,” he added.
Johnson said he expects the inquiry to begin its work in the second quarter of next year and that it will have the power to compel the production of all relevant materials and to take oral evidence under oath.
The announcement was generally welcomed by opposition parties, though Labour Party leader Keir Starmer questioned why it could not be held sooner.
The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group, which has been pressing Johnson to back an inquiry, said his announcement has been “a long time coming”.
It also said it should “start sooner than 2022” and “must include bereaved families in setting the terms of reference and chair”.
For about a year, Johnson has resisted calls from families of those who have died during the pandemic to call an inquiry since last summer (starting in June), arguing that the time was not right.
He reiterated on Wednesday that now was not the right time to hold an inquiry because many front-line workers are still caught up dealing with the pandemic and concerns over new variants remain.
Critics have argued that the country was badly underprepared for dealing with a pandemic following years of cuts to public health.
They also argue that Johnson was too slow in putting the country into lockdown on three occasions, notably 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 the dominant strain.
The delays, many argue, led to the UK 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.
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.
About 53 percent of the UK population has received at least one dose of vaccine with approximately a quarter having been given two jabs.
Johnson also told politicians 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.