The government is not learning lessons – it is rewriting history. Health Secretary Matt Hancock sets about trying to deny what were tragically obvious shortages of PPE, and the Prime Minister states that ‘At all stages we’ve been guided by the science and we will do the right thing at the right time.’ This attempted whitewash shows why we at Keep Our NHS Public are now running the People’s Covid Inquiry to set the record straight, and to learn urgent lessons while the issue is ongoing.
Chaired by human rights barrister Michael Mansfield QC, with eight fortnightly sessions running until June and a final presentation of findings to the government, the first two sessions so far have examined government preparedness and response. The public are now watching in their thousands, as the inquiry continues to tackle vital questions.
Last week, members of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice were among the witnesses who spoke about the urgent need for a public inquiry. They quite rightly want lessons to be learned now, to prevent more deaths and suffering. The government, meanwhile, has put off any inquiry until some distant future date.
But now is the time. The number of people who’ve died with Covid-19 on their death certificate is over 143,000. Boris Johnson is coming under pressure to ease lockdown more quickly from his backbenchers, but case rates are still at the same levels as September 2020, when scientists were calling for an autumn lockdown – a call that was ignored, as in March 2020, with fatal consequences. Despite the successes of the vaccination rollout, schools are back, and new variants are emerging.
The government refuses to exploit the current lowering of case levels and to replace its scandalously ineffective private £37 billion testing scheme with a long-needed public health ‘Find, Test, Trace, Isolate, and Support’ system fit to confront the threat of new variants. Can we be confident that the full return to school, without the mitigation measures recommended by unions and scientists and implemented in other countries, will not lead to a further wave?
Was the scale of this tragic loss of life avoidable? Was the government response appropriate? Why was the NHS stretched to breaking point? Why have there been over 35,000 deaths of care home residents? Why are six in every 10 deaths disabled people? Why was test and trace given to the private sector? Why were public health methods abandoned, necessitating national lockdowns – and why were these fatally delayed each time? Bereaved families and frontline staff deserve to have answers, and lessons learned can still save thousands of lives.
According to Jo Goodman from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, this inquiry provides a vehicle in which to put forward testimony which otherwise would not have had an outlet – ‘But it shouldn’t be left to a campaign group to run an inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic,’ she adds.
‘In theme with the entire response to the pandemic, it once again falls to the people of the country to fulfil the obligations of a government that, I believe, is derelict in its duty,’ says Lobby Akinnola from the same campaign group. ‘The People’s Inquiry seeks to understand exactly what went wrong in the UK, what could be done to prevent it.’
Inquiry Chair Michael Mansfield QC stated at the opening session that the normal course of a judicial inquiry may take roughly six or seven years to constitute, hear evidence, and write a report. He concluded: ‘It may be a useful exercise historically but have absolutely little or no use for contemporary problems that arise. And what people want are answers now, so that’s why we’ve stepped into the breach.’
This quasi-judicial inquiry does not have powers of compulsion to produce documents and to summon witnesses, but it is abiding by some basic rules. Witnesses provide signed statements and are questioned by a barrister about their evidence. There are many more witnesses willing to testify than can be scheduled, and we will add their evidence to an archive.
Witnesses from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice are joined by academics, frontline nurses and doctors, researchers, care and transport frontline workers, and trade union and professional leaders. One witness, chemist Professor David King, explained that details of the pandemic and the virus were made available as early as 23 January 2020 by Chinese scientists in the British medical journal The Lancet, ‘So the whole world could be aware of the infectivity rate, the death rate, etc. of this new virus.’ And yet our government dithered and delayed, instead allowing football matches and a horse-racing festival to continue.
Each session has a theme. Tonight, witnesses will discuss whether the government has a public health strategy, how the successful New Zealand approach remains relevant, whether our government was mindful of the risks faced by frontline workers, and how a successful community contact tracing initiative in Sheffield was organised.
There is much to say, and even more to learn. The inquiry is hearing this important evidence until June, when the panel will draw its conclusions. We will then ask the government to respond.