Boris Johnson today claimed that a swift inquiry into his government’s handling of the Covidpandemic would be “irresponsible”.
The prime minister told MPs that he would hold an inquiry to learn lessons from the outbreak, but insisted that it would be wrong now to divert officials away from the priority of fighting the disease.
He was responding to a Labour MP who had lost his mother, father and mother-in-law to the virus and called for a full public inquiry “as soon as current restrictions are lifted”.
Labour and Liberal Democrats are pushing to prevent the PM from kicking an inquiry into the long grass, with Sir Keir Starmer pushing for it to start as soon as the roadmap out of lockdown ends on 21 June.
And epidemiologist Prof Neil Ferguson yesterday said an inquiry should start “in the next few months”, warning that delay would make it “less likely to actually effect real change”.
But Mr Johnson told the House of Commons that the government would hold an inquiry “as soon as it’s right to do so, as soon as it wouldn’t be an irresponsible diversion of the energies of the key officials involved”.
Speaking at prime minister’s questions, he added: “We are of course committed to an inquiry to learn the lessons, to make sure that something like this can never happen again.”
Mr Johnson was responding to Manchester Gorton MP Afzal Khan, who told the Commons: “A year into this crisis and more than 126,000 lives have been lost. Behind this staggering figure are millions of grieving loved ones.
“In my family, we have lost an entire generation. I couldn’t hold my mum’s hand as she lay dying and I recently lost both my father and mother-in-law within just days of one another.
“Grieving families like mine want and deserve to understand what happened, and if anything could have been done to prevent this tragedy.”
Mr Khan called on the PM to commit today to “launching a full public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic as soon as current restrictions are lifted”.
Mr Johnson offered his “sympathies and sorrow” for Mr Khan’s loss, adding: “His experience is one, as he rightly says, that has been shared by far too many families up and down the country and that’s why we’re of course committed – as soon as it’s right to do so, as soon as it wouldn’t be an irresponsible diversion of the energies of the key officials involved – to an inquiry to learn the lessons, to make sure nothing like this can ever happen again.”
But Sir Keir said a full public inquiry was needed “as soon as restrictions lift”, telling MPs: “That is the only way we can get to the bottom of the many mistakes that were made during the pandemic and find justice for those who suffered so much.”
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam last week said that an imminent public inquiry would be “an extra burden that wasn’t necessary” for medics and experts involved in the pandemic.
“Would an inquiry be an unwelcome distraction for me personally, at the moment, when I’m very focussed on the vaccine programme and the vaccine programme we might need in the autumn? Who knows? I think it would be an extra burden that wasn’t necessary,” he told a Downing Street press conference on 17 March.
“Is looking back on what you did and whether you could do things better a function of medicine, in terms of the clinical audit that happens in every GP surgery and every NHS trust up and down the land? Yes, it is.
“Will lessons be learned in due course? I am sure lessons will emerge.”
But Prof Ferguson suggested yesterday an inquiry should start “in the next few months”.
“It is probably better to get initial conclusions from it sooner rather than later,” he said. “An inquiry which lasts three years – the risk is in three years’ time people’s concerns will have moved on and it’s less likely to actually effect real change”.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies