Bereaved families may take legal action against UK government over Covid-19 inquiry delay

Families for justice group is considering bringing a judicial review

Bereaved families say they may take legal action against the government over delays in starting the coronavirus public inquiry PA.
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Bereaved families said they may take legal action against the British government following delays to the start of the public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic and Covid-19 deaths.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group is considering bringing a judicial review after failure to provide a setting-up date for the inquiry.

They say this leaves the inquiry in “limbo”, more than six months after Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed Baroness Hallett to lead the investigation.

Mr Johnson said the inquiry would start in the spring of 2022, but its terms of reference have not yet been published, nor has a set-up date been specified.

The group said the delay could cost lives, as it slows down how quickly lessons can be learnt, and families are worried that evidence could be tampered with or destroyed.

Under the 2005 Inquiries Act, an inquiry “must not begin considering evidence before the setting up date”.

Once an inquiry is under way it is an offence under the Act to destroy or tamper with evidence.

The campaign group believes the six-month delay between appointing the inquiry chairwoman and giving a setting-up date goes beyond the “reasonable time” allowed by law.

Elkan Abrahamson, head of major inquiries at legal firm Broudie Jackson Canter, who is representing the group, said taking legal action is the “last thing” families want but they may be left with no choice.

“In the vast majority of inquiries a setting-up date is given within days or weeks of the chair being appointed, so this delay of over six months is both unprecedented and totally inexplicable,” he said.

“The consequences are extremely serious, as it only becomes a criminal offence to destroy or tamper with evidence after the inquiry’s start date.

“By failing to give one, the prime minister is opening the door to key evidence being destroyed,” Mr Abrahamson said.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, accused the government of wasting time.

“These delays slow down how quickly we can learn lessons from the pandemic and could cost lives, so why is the prime minister endlessly wasting time?” she said.

“He could set the inquiry up and get the process moving with the stroke of a pen.

“Even more worryingly, this delay makes it far more likely that key evidence will be lost or destroyed.

“If the prime minister can’t do what’s needed to let Baroness Hallett crack on with the job of learning the lessons from the deaths of our loved ones, we’ll need to consider every option available to us.”

“In accordance with the Inquiries Act, the prime minister has consulted the devolved administrations and is now finalising the terms of reference,” a government representative said.

“These will be published shortly.”

Covid-19 infections are climbing in the UK, with the increase likely to be driven by the latest Omicron variants BA. 4 and BA. 5, figures showed.

The number of people in hospital with Covid is also rising in most parts of the country, suggesting the virus is becoming steadily more prevalent.

A total of 1.7 million people in private households are estimated to have had the virus last week, up 23 per cent from 1.4 million a week earlier, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

Updated: June 26, 2022, 2:23 PM