Boris Johnson promises inquiry into UK response to pandemic

Britain has suffered worst death toll in Europe but enjoyed fastest vaccine rollout

Queen Elizabeth delivers her speech in the House of Lords. Photograph: Eddie Mulholland - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth delivers her speech in the House of Lords. Photograph: Eddie Mulholland - WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

Boris Johnson has told MPs at Westminster that there will be a public inquiry into his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen Britain suffer the worst death toll in Europe but also enjoy the fastest vaccine rollout.

“I can certainly say that we will do that within this session,” he said during a debate on the queen’s speech outlining the government’s legislative programme for the next year’s parliamentary session.

“I do believe it is essential that we have a full, proper public inquiry into the Covid pandemic, and I’ve been clear with the House before.”

Until now, Mr Johnson has said an early inquiry could interfere with the government’s efforts to deal with the pandemic and to oversee the economic recovery from it. Former Downing Street chief of staff Dominic Cummings is due to appear before a parliamentary committee on May 26th, when he is expected to be highly critical of Mr Johnson’s handling of the pandemic.

The legislative programme includes measures to boost employment and adult education and a tough immigration bill that could deny people granted asylum the right to settle in Britain and refuse asylum to those who enter the country illegally. Other bills announced on Tuesday include measures to curb judicial review of government decisions and to require voters to show personal identification before casting their ballots in future elections.

A new subsidy control bill will loosen rules on state aid to business following Britain’s exit from the European Union and another will introduce higher animal welfare standards than those demanded by the EU.

Immigration clampdown

The new immigration legislation would block asylum applications from anyone who passed through a country where they could have claimed asylum, such as France or Belgium. It would create a new “one-stop” process that would require applicants to make any claim of asylum or of other protection at the start of the process.

“We will use the powers we have recovered from the EU to strengthen our borders and reform the asylum system cracking down on the criminal gangs which profit from trafficking human beings, by ensuring that, for the first time, the fact of whether people enter the UK legally or illegally will have an impact on their asylum claim,” Mr Johnson said.

A “freedom of speech” bill would place a legal obligation on student unions to “secure lawful freedom of speech for their members and others, including visiting speakers”. This follows the withdrawal of invitations to some controversial speakers about issues such as race and gender after protests from students. Another bill would stop publicly funded bodies from advocating boycotts that are not backed by the government, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act, introduced by David Cameron’s government in 2011, will be repealed, enabling Mr Johnson to call an election earlier than 2024 if he chooses.

Keir Starmer said Labour would oppose the demand for voters to show ID and the government’s proposals to curb judges’ power to review legislation.

“The prime minister must know that introducing compulsory voter ID will supress turnout. It will disproportionately impact ethnic minorities. And it will weaken our democracy. Labour will have no part in that,” he said.

“We also oppose plans in the Judicial Review Bill to weaken the power of our courts and to curtail the right of judicial review. This government simply fails to understand that our independent judiciary are a strength in our country, not a weakness.”