Answering questions in the House of Commons, the prime minister said he did not believe it was right to hold an inquiry immediately, but said there would “certainly” be an independent inquiry.
Responding at prime minister’s questions to a demand for an inquiry from acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, Mr Johnson said: “I do not believe that now in the middle of combating – as we still are – a pandemic is the right moment to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry.
“But of course we will seek to learn the lessons of this pandemic in the future, and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened.”
Mr Johnson had previously steered clear of promising an inquiry, which could result in his government’s decisions being subjected to rigorous and detailed scrutiny in public.
The exact format of the inquiry is yet to be determined, but the PM’s pledge that it will be independent is a major concession, preventing the government from limiting it to an internal “lessons learnt” exercise.
Much will depend on the timing of the inquiry, the chair chosen to lead it and whether it will have powers to require ministers and officials to appear in person to give evidence and answer questions and to enforce the disclosure of documents. And there is likely to be debate over whether its hearings should be televised live and the circumstances and timing of the publication of its eventual report.
Opposition parties are likely to insist that the probe must be set up on a statutory basis under the 2005 Inquiries Act, which provides legal powers to compel witnesses to give evidence and sets limits upon the government’s control. Statutory inquiries are not the only option open to the government, which can instead establish a non-statutory inquiry or a Royal Commission.
Critics of the prime minister will want to be sure that the format permits the possibility of any inquiry reporting within his period in office. Earlier inquiries have taken considerable periods to report, like the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday which took 12 years and the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War which took seven.
Downing Street aides declined to be drawn on the timing or nature of the inquiry, telling a regular Westminster media briefing only that it would take place “in due course”.
Contentious subjects to be put under the microscope would certainly include the shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and coronavirus tests, the discharge of Covid-infected elderly people into care homes and the award of multimillion pound contracts to private companies without normal competitive tendering processes.
Mr Johnson’s own decision to carry on shaking hands in hospitals and his senior aide Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown guidelines to drive to a cottage on his parents’ farm in County Durham can also be expected to be examined, as can the delays in imposing lockdown and the speed and sequencing of the eventual relaxation of restrictions.
And questions will be asked over whether the confused messages sent out by government contributed to the UK reaching third place worldwide in total deaths from Covid-19.
Scientists and medical experts too can be expected to come under scrutiny over the sometimes conflicting advice given to government. And questions will be asked about China’s transparency in relation to the original emergence of the novel disease in the city of Wuhan.
Speaking after his question secured the PM’s promise of an inquiry, Sir Ed Davey said: “We need an independent, judge-led inquiry into the handling of coronavirus. I am pleased that at PMQs today I got the prime minister to commit to holding that inquiry.
“We now need to keep up the pressure to make sure he stands by his words today.”
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