LONDON (AP) – A massive three-year public inquiry into the UK government’s handling of the COVID-19 response began Tuesday by asking whether suffering and death could have been avoided with better planning.
Lawyer Hugo Keith, who is soliciting the inquiry, said the coronavirus pandemic had brought “death and disease on an unprecedented scale” to modern Britain. He added that 226,977 people in the UK have recorded COVID-19 as the cause of death
“The key issue is whether that effect was unavoidable,” Keith said. “Were those dire consequences harsh, or were they avoidable or capable of mitigation?”
A group of people who have lost relatives to COVID-19 put up pictures of their loved ones at an unnamed London office building outside the inquest site. The first day of the public hearing began with a 17-minute video in which people described the devastating impact of the pandemic on themselves and their loved ones.
Britain’s pandemic death toll is among the highest in Europe, and the decisions of then-prime minister Boris Johnson’s government have been endlessly debated. Johnson agreed to hold an inquiry in late 2021 after pressure from bereaved families.
The inquiry, led by retired judge Heather Hallett, is due to be heard until 2026. It is due to examine the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic, how the government responded and what lessons can be learned for the future.
Senior scientists and officials, including Johnson, are expected to appear as witnesses. Hallett, who has the power to call evidence and question witnesses under oath, is currently in a legal battle with the government over its request to see an unedited trove of notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages between Johnson and other officials.
UK public inquiries are often thorough, but rarely quick. The inquiry into the 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath began in 2009 and released its 2.6 million-word report in 2016.
Hallett says she will issue findings after each segment, rather than waiting until the hearing is over.
Keith said the first section would look at whether the British plan relied too heavily on the misconception that future pandemics would be influenza-like.
He noted that at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the government had stated that “the United Kingdom was prepared to respond in a way that provides adequate protection to the public.”
“Even at this stage, before hearing the evidence, it is clear that we cannot be very well prepared,” he said.
Keith also said Britain’s plan to exit the European Union after voters supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum diverted resources from work to prepare for possible pandemics.
“That departure required a great amount of planning and preparation, especially with the potential for dire consequences for exiting without a deal in terms of food and drug supplies, travel and transportation, trade borders and so on,” he said.
“It is clear that such planning, since 2018, has been out of step and has stalled some or perhaps most of the reforms that the central government itself understood, were needed to build flexibility for planning and preparedness.”
Jill Lawless, The Associated Press