Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson said the government will set up an independent public inquiry that will have “full powers under the Inquiries Act of 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials, and take oral evidence in public, under oath.”
Johnson told MPs that the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove had spoken to the first ministers and deputy first ministers of the devolved nations and that the government would consult the devolved administrations before finalising the scope and detailed arrangements of the inquiry.
With regard to the timing of the inquiry, the PM said he understood that some MPs and many bereaved families would be “anxious” for it to begin sooner, but the pandemic is not over, and “we must not inadvertently divert and distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease.”
Jo Goodman, co-founder of COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said it was a “huge relief” to hear the news, but spring 2022 is “simply too late to begin.”
“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,” Goodman said in a statement, quoted by Sky News.
“A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter,” the statement reads.
Downing Street has defended the timescale for starting the public inquiry, saying it requires a “great deal of government time” when it’s still under the pressure of the pandemic.
The spokesperson said the government doesn’t have a set timeframe for selecting a chair for the inquiry, and that it will “come forward with terms of reference and name a chair in due course.”
The spokesperson has also confirmed that a lessons-learned review of the pandemic response has been carried out but declined to say whether it would be published.
“What you’re referring to is an informal, not public-facing work, that as you’d expect is standard practice for departments to look into ways to continually improve,” the spokesperson said in response to a question during a press briefing.
“And that’s been done previously and that’s been done throughout this pandemic.”
Johnson’s announcement comes as a damning report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO), said a quicker international response could have stopped the 2019 CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus outbreak in China from becoming a global catastrophe.
“The time it took from the reporting of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in mid-late December 2019 to a Public Health Emergency of International Concern [(PHEIC)] being declared was too long,” the panel said in a news release.
“February 2020 was also a lost month when many more countries could have taken steps to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and forestall the global health, social, and economic catastrophe that continues its grip,” the statement reads.
PA contributed to this report.