Asked when the independent probe – announced in early July, with details to follow “in due course” – would get underway, the prime minister said he had “no update” to give.
Instead, he suggested it would not start until the pandemic is beaten, despite both MPs and scientists pleading for action now so the mistakes from the first wave are not repeated.
“You heard the prime minister commit to ensuring we learnt the lessons of the pandemic, but he also said the time for doing that needs to be right. At the moment, the focus is on the ongoing fight against the virus,” the spokesman said.
The delay was attacked by the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which is campaigning for an immediate inquiry – but which Mr Johnson has refused to meet.
“The 'ongoing fight against the virus' is exactly why we need to learn lessons as soon as possible,” said co-founder Jo Goodman, who lost her father Stuart to the virus.
The Conservative MP William Wragg, whose Commons committee urged the prime minister to stop dragging his heels in a report last month, also expressed concern.
Noting an inquiry would take several months to prepare, he told The Independent: “We’ve suggested a model and would urge the government to proceed in that way as quickly as possible.”
No-one knows how long the battle against coronavirus will be “ongoing” – but ministers have admitted the tougher restrictions re-imposed from last month are likely to be needed through the winter, at least.
Scientists were pushing for a “rapid review” as early as June, ahead of the feared second wave which has now arrived with fast-rising infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
They pointed to “fragmentation” in health response to the pandemic, a “failure” to work with local government and devolved nations and weaknesses in channelling scientific evidence into policy – all controversies in recent weeks.
Ms Goodman added: “If an inquiry started immediately, and had a 'rapid review' first phase, then its findings could be improving our pandemic response before Christmas.
“Thousands of lives might be saved. You have to ask: why would the government want to avoid that?”
The MPs’ report, by the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, said the government must ensure the inquire is ready to start in January.
It must also be headed by a “visibly impartial” figure – after Tory allies were appointed to other key roles – who should undergo scrutiny first, it recommended.
The health and science committees have stepped into the gap, with a joint inquiry of their own, but it cannot compel witnesses to appear and lacks the resources of a public inquiry.
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