NEWS
30/01/2021 16:29 GMT | Updated 30/01/2021 16:29 GMT

How The Government Could Be Held Accountable For The 100,000 UK Covid Deaths

Campaigners are calling for a public inquiry. Those who have been through one before have some words of advice

PA Media

As Boris Johnson offered his condolences to the 100,000 (and counting) UK families who have lost loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic, one person watching wasn’t impressed in the slightest.

“I don’t care about his condolences at all,” 29-year-old Jamie Brown tells HuffPost UK.

“He said he’s sorry for losing people. But he’s not sorry for the choices and decisions that he and his government made that have directly led to the deaths of all these people.”

Brown is part of a campaign group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, which is calling for a public inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic.

He lost his father, 65-year-old Tony, on March 29 last year after he contracted Covid-19, possibly while travelling on public transport to London from Essex.

“We think he caught it on March 12,” says Jamie. “Which was two weeks before the UK locked down properly.

“If Johnson had done his job properly he would still be alive.”

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK came to prominence last November when, alongside Led by Donkeys, it projected video messages on to the Palace of Westminster from grieving families who lost loved ones during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then a further 50,000 people and counting have died and the calls for a public inquiry have grown louder. 

What is a public inquiry?

A public inquiry is a major investigation into an event that caused great suffering and/or loss and life. It is convened by a government minister and has special powers to force people to testify and release other forms of evidence.

In essence, its main aim is to examine what happened, learn lessons, and implement changes to avoid a recurrence of the event in question.

Notable examples are the ongoing inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people in 2017 and the Chilcot Inquiry, which examined the UK’s role in the disastrous military intervention in Iraq in 2003.

Are there grounds for an inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic?

The government response to the virus and numerous U-turns in policy would appear to provide several potential starting points for a public inquiry.

For example, compared to other nations, the UK was slow to react to the pandemic, and the government was reluctant to implement restrictions at the pace scientists were advising.

Statista

Nine days before Tony Brown contracted coronavirus, Boris Johnson bragged that he “shook hands with everybody” at a hospital “where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients”.

This just happened to be the same day Sage scientists warned people against shaking hands with anyone, never mind coronavirus patients.

“It seems the government is incapable of acknowledging they’ve made any mistakes and they’re just adapting their policies as they go,” says Brown.

What has the government said about a public inquiry?

It’s all for one – to an extent.

A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK in a statement: “We have been clear that there will be opportunities in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this pandemic.

“As the prime minister has said, this will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time.”

When is the ‘appropriate time’?

That depends who you ask. The government hasn’t given a specific answer but have made it clear it does not believe the right time is now. But for the people who have lost loved ones, however, this is exactly the right time.

“The point of an inquiry is to protect more life while people are waiting for a vaccine,” says Brown.

“The subsequent priority is accountability. That might be satisfying at some point in the future but right now, I just want to stop people dying every day.”

How long after the event have previous inquiries taken?

The UK’s track record with public inquiries is patchy at best. There are currently two going on – the aforementioned Grenfell Tower inquiry and the Infected Blood Inquiry.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry was ordered the day after the disaster, before the final death toll was even known.

While this was exemplary in its timing and suggested a government willing to examine evidence, the Infected Blood Inquiry was anything but.

Thousands of patients across the UK were infected with HIV and hepatitis C via contaminated blood products in the 1970s and 1980s and about 2,400 people died in what has been labelled the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS.

A UK-wide inquiry was not formally established until July 2018 and the relatives of those that died have been forced to bear the more than just the weight of their loss for decades.

“It dominates your life,” says Su Gorman, whose husband Steve died on December 23 last year after receiving contaminated blood products during treatment for his mild haemophilia in 1976.

“I can’t move on until I get the inquest verdict. It takes up most of my time. It’s always on your mind. It’s always there. Why did it happen? Why was it allowed to happen?”

These are the questions already being asked by the families of those who have died of Covid, and Gorman is adamant they should not have to wait as long as she did.

“Our inquiry wasn’t granted – it was conceded,” she says.

“With a Covid inquiry it should be given with a positive attitude by the government saying ‘we want to learn lessons from what went wrong’, not extracted from them like a bad tooth.”

Asked if she had any advice for Brown, she said to “keep battling and don’t take no for an answer”.

"[My husband’s] last words as he left this earth were ‘they must repent’. And by God, I’m going to make sure that they do.”

Do public inquiries always work?

Again, the UK has a patchy record.

The Chilcot Inquiry found the UK’s grounds for invading Iraq were unsound and based on flawed intelligence and analysis. But no one was ever punished or sanctioned for what the report found.

After the 1989 Hillsborough disaster during which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-final, an inquiry was established almost immediately.

It recommended a number of changes to stadiums so the disaster could avoid being repeated, and many were implemented in time for the next football season in 1990.

For Brown, this is an example of how an immediate inquiry into coronavirus could help save lives now. “Within 11 weeks they had implemented the findings of the report in time for the next season,” he says.

“So where there’s a will, it’s possible.”

But Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died in the disaster, highlights that although the inquiry spurred practical changes almost immediately, the families of Hillsborough victims have had a decades-long struggle for accountability and justice.

“What angers me more than anything is that I couldn’t give the time to my family that I should have done because I was busy fighting for a cause that was right and proper and just,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“I’ve missed out on my children growing up because I had to do what I had to do.”

Speaking of the families bereaved by Covid, she adds: “They shouldn’t have to fight for the truth – they should just get it.”

Is there another option?

Yes. Former Crown Prosecution chief, Nazir Afzal, this week announced he had instructed lawyers to look into if there is enough evidence to prosecute Boris Johnson for misconduct in public office.

“We’ve lost more people than we did to the plague, to AIDS and all terror attacks,” he tells HuffPost UK.

“If you’ve got to a situation where you’re as bad as if not the worst in the world then how did we get there?”

Afzal doesn’t yet know if there is enough to launch criminal proceedings or if it’s even possible, but says “we’ve got to start looking for it”.

“I don’t know who else is. The National Crime Agency or the Met Police aren’t investigating any one of these deaths.”

What are the next steps?

At the moment it’s unclear. 

During the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK’s stunt at Westminster last year, the group highlighted that Boris Johnson had refused repeated requests to meet them to discuss what could happen.

“He’s not so sorry that he’ll meet with us and answer our questions. Every time, we’ve had a written refusal,” says Brown.

“Can he accept that each bereaved family has first hand experience of what his government has been getting wrong?”

In a statement, a spokesperson for the government told HuffPost UK that “every death is a tragedy” and bereaved families have “our deepest sympathies”, and reiterated that a public inquiry would happen.

Aspinall says: “Never give up doing your best fighting for the people who have died.”

“And never trust anyone in power.”