Boris Johnson announces public Covid inquiry into government's handling of pandemic

ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks reports on the issues which will be examined in the Covid inquiry

Boris Johnson has announced an independent, public inquiry into the government's handling of Covid-19, starting in Spring 2022.

The prime minister told MPs the inquiry would be able to take oral evidence under oath and will place “the state’s actions under the microscope”.

However, Labour and organisations representing bereaved families and medical staff have called for it to begin sooner.

It 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 coronavirus outbreak in China becoming a global catastrophe.

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston explains how testimonies in the inquiry will be given under oath and the issues in the inquiry will be 'very serious'

He outlined the impact of the pandemic before telling the House of Commons: “Amid such tragedy the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future – which is why I’ve always said when the time is right there should be a full and independent inquiry.

“So, I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 – including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.

“In establishing the inquiry, we will work closely with the devolved administrations.”

On the persistent threat of new variants, he added: “Should these prove highly transmissible and elude the protection of our vaccines, they would have the potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January.

“There is in any case a high likelihood of a surge this winter when the weather assists the transmission of all respiratory diseases and when the pressure on our NHS is most acute.”

He went on to say: “So I expect that the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period in the spring of next year, spring 2022.”

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer questioned why the inquiry could not start before next year, asking in the Commons: “I understand a statutory inquiry will take time to set up, but why could it not be later this year? Why could it not start earlier?”

He pressed the Prime Minister to explain if the inquiry will open and start taking evidence in spring 2022 or whether that will be the work to establish the inquiry.

Doctor Katie Sanderson, who works on the frontline, tells ITV News she feels a proportion of Covid deaths were preventable

Katie Sanderson told ITV News: "I feel very strongly and have campaigned on, lack of adequate PPE (personal protective equipment) and I think incorrect PPE guidelines, have contributed to far higher numbers of NHS staff becoming ill than needed to."

"During the first wave up to 20% of covid infections were acquired in hospitals, that's appalling, we need to understand how to avoid that ever happening again.

Boris Johnson said the preparatory work to establish the terms of reference and the inquiry chair “will happen before the spring of next year”, adding: “We will be getting it under way, we will be taking some key decisions.

“I think the House will agree that it would not be right to devote the time of people who are looking after us, who are saving lives, to an inquiry before we can be absolutely, much more certain than we are now that the pandemic is behind us.”

Although Mr Johnson has repeatedly said there would be an inquiry, he had never indicated when it would start and has never suggested whether it would be a "full, proper public inquiry" or one that is less formal and less time-consuming.

A full inquiry is led by a judge and includes witnesses represented by lawyers.

Such a public inquiry - like Sir John Chilcott's into the decision to go to war in Iraq - would take many years and might not report until after the next election.

In a statement, Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “It’s a huge relief to hear the Prime Minister commit to the statutory inquiry that bereaved families have been calling for – one with the power to compel witnesses.

“But there are still further steps needed to ensure we all get the answers we need as a country.

“First and foremost any inquiry must involve bereaved families from the start, helping to choose the chair as well as determining the terms of reference. Whilst we welcome the Prime Minister’s assurances that bereaved families will be consulted on this, the devil will be in the detail.

“Secondly, 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.

“A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter.”

Watch Boris Johnson's announcement in full:

The British Medical Association also called for the inquiry to begin sooner.

BMA Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said it was "encouraging that the prime minster has said that the inquiry must be rigorous and candid but that should not mean that bereaved families and front line staff  have to wait the better part of a year before it gets underway.

"Whilst it would not be right to distract healthcare staff from their hugely important day to day work, the government mustn’t use that as an excuse to not get this inquiry underway as soon as is effectively possible.  “Almost 128,000 people have lost their lives to the virus and some communities have been impacted far worse than others.

"Scores of health and social care workers have put their lives at risk every single day, with hundreds who died from the virus and an NHS that was already not coping with demand when the pandemic took hold.

"We have seen the failures of inadequate PPE provision and supply, the fiasco that was Test and Trace, the lack of proper risk assessment and mitigation, especially for black and ethnic minority staff and the devastation that caused. “This inquiry needs to be thorough, with no stone unturned... it must also be about lessons being learned so the mistakes made cannot be repeated and the country is better prepared for future pandemics.

"This inquiry must involve all those who need answers and it needs to start much earlier than the spring of next year."