Public inquiry into British government’s handling of pandemic to be next spring

‘State has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible’ – Johnson

Prime minister Boris Johnson elbow greets a nurse at Westminster Abbey’s annual service for the Florence Nightingale Foundation, to mark nurses’ contribution to the community. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Prime minister Boris Johnson elbow greets a nurse at Westminster Abbey’s annual service for the Florence Nightingale Foundation, to mark nurses’ contribution to the community. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

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A public inquiry into the British government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will begin next spring, Boris Johnson has told MPs. Conducted under the 2005 Inquiry Act, it will have the power to compel witnesses to testify and to gain submission of documents, messages and other evidence.

But the prime minister offered no details about the inquiry’s terms of reference, who would chair it or how long it is likely to take.

“The state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future, which is why I have always said that when the time is right there should be a full and independent inquiry,” he said.

The announcement comes two weeks before Mr Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings is due to give evidence before a parliamentary committee about how the government handled the pandemic. The two men have had a bitter falling out and Mr Cummings is expected to be highly critical of the prime minister’s conduct and decision-making.

Some government insiders believe the announcement of the inquiry is an attempt to get ahead of Mr Cummings by arguing that any verdict on the government’s handling of the pandemic should wait until the inquiry has concluded. The prime minister defended his decision to wait until next year to start the inquiry by arguing that his advisers could be too busy dealing with the pandemic until then.

Dominic Cummings, former advisor to the British prime minister Boris Johnson, speaks to members of the media outside of his home in London on May 4th. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA
Dominic Cummings, former advisor to the British prime minister Boris Johnson, speaks to members of the media outside of his home in London on May 4th. Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

“This process will place the state’s actions under the microscope, and we should be mindful of the scale of that undertaking and the resources required to do it properly,” he said.

“The exercise of identifying and disclosing all relevant information, the months of preparation and retrospective analysis, and the time that people will have to spend testifying in public, in some cases for days, will place a significant burden on our NHS, on the whole of government, on our scientific advisers, and on many others. We must not inadvertently divert and distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease. And the end of the lockdown is not the end of the pandemic.” 

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the inquiry should begin as soon as possible, asking why it could not start later this year. Jo Goodman, co-founder of Bereaved Families for Justice said people who had lost loved ones to coronavirus would feel relieved that an inquiry was happening.

“Any inquiry must involve bereaved families from the start. Whilst we welcome the prime minister’s assurances that bereaved families will be consulted on this, the devil will be in the detail,” she said.

“It sounds like common sense when the prime minister says that an inquiry can wait until the pandemic is over, but lives are at stake with health experts and scientists warning of a third wave later this year. A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter.”