Boris Johnson announces Covid-19 public inquiry

Britain's PM confirms investigation into handling of crisis will take place next year

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday announced that a public inquiry will be held next year into his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

He previously resisted pressure for an inquiry while the government was still responding to the health emergency.

Mr Johnson said it will take place in spring 2022, when the worst of the crisis is expected to be over.

"This process will place the state's actions under the microscope," he told the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK legislature.

“The country has been through a trauma. We owe it to the country to produce answers within a reasonable timescale.”

Mr Johnson did not set out the terms of reference for the inquiry, or who would lead it, and said it was necessary to consult with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on those issues.

He said the inquiry would have wide-ranging statutory powers, including the ability to compel witnesses.

Families bereaved during the pandemic have since last summer been calling for an inquiry.

Pressure group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice said on Wednesday the prime minister's announcement was a "huge relief" but that lives could be saved if the inquiry was held sooner.

"Spring 2022 is simply too late to begin," the group 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."

Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, urged the prime minister to appoint an independent chairman and consult affected families at the earliest opportunity.

“Why could it not start earlier?” he said.

The Inquiries Act 2005 protects any public inquiry from government intervention, but ministers are allowed to decide who chairs the investigation.

This does not have to be a judge, but the government is required to appoint someone who has "necessary expertise to undertake the inquiry" and does not have a "direct interest" in the subject.

By delaying the start of the inquiry until next year, Mr Johnson is likely to avoid the release of findings before the next general election, because public inquiries generally take two and a half years.

But the prime minister said now was not the time to "inadvertently divert or distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease".

He said there was "a high likelihood of a surge this winter”.

'"No public inquiry could take place fast enough to assist in the very difficult judgments which will remain necessary throughout the rest of the year and the remainder of the pandemic, and we must not weigh down the efforts of those engaged in protecting us every day, and thereby risk endangering further lives," he said.

The UK has recorded more than 127,500 Covid-related deaths, Europe's highest toll.

More on coronavirus:

Unicef: UK could donate 25 million vaccine doses without disruption

Queue-jumping Germans fake details to get Covid vaccines

Sweden could have avoided four in 10 Covid deaths with early lockdown

Updated: May 12, 2021 06:14 PM

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