Covid victims 'treated like toxic waste' say Bereaved Families as inquiry opens in Wales

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Covid victims were 'ignored, forgotten, and treated like toxic waste' says Covid-19 bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, as the UK-wide coronavirus inquiry opens in Wales.

Tom Poole KC, Lead Counsel to the Inquiry, said evidence suggests the Welsh Government did not make Covid a priority in the very early stages of the pandemic.

He questioned whether the Welsh Government did not take the threat of the virus seriously when it began to emerge in early 2020.

Although the UK government first discussed coronavirus on the 31st of January 2020, the Welsh government did not do the same until nearly a whole month later on February 25th.

But Welsh Government and health officials had raised concerns over their ability to access information about the virus.

Evidence suggests devolved administrations were not updated on some important UK Government decisions before they were announced publicly, for example change in public health messaging from stay at home to stay alert in May 2020, Tom Poole KC told the inquiry.

The inquiry opened with the emotional testimonies of people who lost loved ones during the pandemic in both English and Welsh.

Families shared their experiences of losing relatives who were admitted to hospital for something else and while there caught and died of Covid. 

A number of people detailed how their loved one died of cancer because they were not seen in time due to the backlog in appointments caused by the pandemic.

Families also said they had struggled to see their relatives in hospital with such tight restrictions on visiting.

Tom Poole KC set out the inquiry's purpose, explaining that it will look at Welsh Government decision-making between January 2020 and May 2022.

He said: “We will enquire into, probe and challenge core decisions to see if they were made on the best information, after proper consultation, as part of a well ordered process and without undue delay or unnecessary prevarication.

“We will question key decision-makers, including the First Minister, other members of the Welsh Cabinet and advice received from political and scientific advisers.”

The inquiry will begin hearing evidence on Wednesday, starting with some of those who were most affected by the pandemic.

This will include two members of the bereaved families group, Professor Emmanuel Ogbonna, professor of management and organisation at Cardiff University and vice-chair of Race Council Wales, Professor Debbie Foster, professor of employment relations and diversity at Cardiff University, Helena Herklots CBE, older people's commission for Wales, and Professor Sally Holland, former children's commissioner for Wales.

The second day of the inquiry’s time in Wales coincides with the four year anniversary of the first Covid case being confirmed in Wales.

It's the first time Welsh Government decisions will be scrutinised in detail.

Baroness Hallett, chair of the Inquiry, will start “substantive public hearings" into decisions made by the Welsh Government and Welsh medical officials during the Covid pandemic from March 2020 onwards.

Held at the Mercure Cardiff North Hotel, the Inquiry will last until 14 March.

It officially began on June 28, 2022 and will aim to conclude public hearings in 2026.

First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has resisted a Wales-specific Inquiry, claiming a UK wide approach would provide enough scrutiny. Members of Plaid Cymru, as well as the Welsh Conservatives, have criticised this decision.

Plaid Cymru's Health and Social spokesperson Mabon ap Gwynfor MS said the UK wide enquiry "will not have the time nor capacity to fully scrutinise all decisions made in Wales".

“The Labour Welsh Government’s outright refusal to establish a Welsh-specific inquiry is a fundamental dereliction of accountability and undermines devolution. It is inexcusable."

Andrew RT Davies, leader of the Welsh Conservatives, has also criticised Welsh Labour's decision not to have a Wales-specific Covid inquiry. He said: "The next few weeks will be a reminder to those who lost loved ones of how Labour has robbed them of the answers they deserve.

"While the UK inquiry will doubtless do important work, it cannot give Labour’s decisions the same intricate scrutiny as a Wales-specific inquiry would be able to.

"The Welsh Conservatives believe that people who lost loved ones deserve a Wales-specific inquiry so they can get the answers they deserve, and that Wales deserves."

The Welsh Government came to an agreement with the Conservatives to establish a "Special Purposes" Committee tasked with reviewing the reports from the UK Inquiry, carrying out additional investigations into any perceived gaps. But Plaid Cymru representatives have criticised this move, calling it a "back-room deal".

Senior officials and ministers were questioned rigorously during their appearances at the UK Inquiry in July with former Health Minister Vaughan Gething admitting to not having read preparedness documents.

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The following "Core Participants" will be represented in the inquiry:

  • Welsh Government

  • Welsh Local Government Association

  • National Police Chiefs Council

  • Public Health Wales

  • Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru

  • Relatives & Residents Association

  • Children's Commissioner for Wales

  • Trades Union Congress

  • Disability Rights UK and Disability Wales

The Inquiry's website refers to a "Core participant" as a person, organisation or institution with a 'specific interest in the work of the Inquiry', who has a formal role defined by legislation. You do not need to be a "Core Participant" to provide evidence to the Inquiry.

Craig Court, solicitor for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru said: "We do feel like our voices are being heard. A lot of the submissions we've made to the chair have influenced the focus on the Welsh matters.

"Whilst the chair herself has recognised it would be impossible to consider all of the issues relevant to Wales, they are considering the issues. Of course that's no replacement for a Wales-specific inquiry where those issues could be looked at in perhaps more granular detail."

Sam Smith-Higgins, a campaigner for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru said: "This isn't our world, I'm completely out of my comfort zone doing this. And it's a huge responsibility.

"For us we're the only ones asking questions in Wales, so it's a massive responsibility. I'm exhausted by it. None of us really want to be doing it, but it's a compelling duty to show that actually things went wrong."

The inquiry continues.

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