Boris Johnson has finally met with Covid bereaved families more than a year after promising to come face to face with those impacted by the pandemic.
The PM hosted the private meeting with representatives of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group on Tuesday afternoon at No 10.
In a meeting that lasted just over an hour and took place outside at the request of the families, five people shared how their loved ones caught the virus and died.
Mr Johnson told them he had committed to appointing a chair for the Covid inquiry before Christmas this year and that bereaved families would have input on the decision. He has previously said the inquiry would start in spring 2022.
Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, described the meeting as a “positive step”, but said that “we are still disappointed that there is a lack of urgency in getting the inquiry going. We don’t quite know what he is waiting for.”
“It’s been really hurtful and feels like we’ve been locked out of any meaningful dialogue up until now.
“We did challenge him on the fact that we are being told that the pandemic is still ongoing and so the inquiry can’t start, whereas on the other hand we see that people aren’t wearing masks in parliament. The messaging at the moment feels very much like they’re saying the pandemic is over.
“Why can’t the process of appointing the chair start tomorrow? He gave the timeline of before Christmas but it can happen more quickly.”
Jo Goodman said a retired High Court judge might be an appropriate candidate to chair the inquiry.
She added that the group were only given about a week’s notice of the meeting with the prime minister: “We don’t know why specifically now [the prime minister decided to have the meeting]. No real clues as to the timing,” she said.
The members of the five families – Jo Goodman, Fran Hall, Lobby Akinnola, Charlie Williams and Hannah Brady – were told by Mr Johnson that the National Covid Memorial Wall is a “good candidate to be a permanent national memorial. I support it, it’s very moving”.
The prime minister also agreed that his government would engage with families around the need for enhanced bereavement support.
After the meeting with Mr Johnson the families spoke to reporters about their lost loved ones at the National Covid Memorial Wall.
Lobby Akinnola lost his father to the virus during the first wave of the pandemic in April.
Speaking about how his family coped in the first lockdown, he said: “Everyone in my family was a key worker at the time. My dad worked for a mental health charity as a day carer. My mum was a pharmacist. We think either him or my mum caught Covid from work.”
Even before he fell ill, Lobby’s father Femi was taking the pandemic seriously. “He was sending us medical journals and telling us to be so careful,” Lobby remembered.
“When they starting falling ill, my mum isolated in the bedroom and he isolated in the living room. He even refused to speak when people were in the room because he didn’t want to spread the virus.”
But despite calling 111 a number of times, his father was constantly advised to stay at home. Lobby said: “The response was always that he should stay at home because he was a healthy guy – he went to the gym, he exercised, he had an allotment. For a long time he just didn’t feel better and he spoke to his GP but again they told him to stay at home.
“When he started coughing up blood, he was given antibiotics. We thought he was getting better and one morning my mum came down and found him passed away on the sofa.”
Lobby had a chance to tell his family’s story in Tuesday’s meeting. He added: “It was good to speak to the prime minister to express ourselves and it did feel like he listened.
“But I would say that we left wanting more urgency. It was good to hear a commitment to the chair and naming a minister responsible. But ultimately we were hearing the same responses we had heard before about why the inquiry couldn’t start now.
“We are seeing numbers rise again. How many times will this cycle happen?”
Elkan Abrahamson, director and head of major inquiries at the law firm Broudie Jackson Canter, will represent the group at the upcoming probe.
He has represented families at the Hillsborough and Manchester Arena bombing inquests.
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