Boris Johnson threatened with legal action for delaying promised Covid public inquiry

Bereaved families explore judicial review over ‘unprecedented’ hold-up – delaying report until after general election

Johnson rejects demands for immediate inquiry into government's handling of Covid

Boris Johnson is being threatened with legal action for stalling on the promised public inquiry into his handling of the Covid crisis, with no date set for it to start.

Bereaved families have announced plans to explore a judicial review – accusing the prime minister of breaking a pledge that the probe would get underway in “spring 2022”.

It has been six months since the former Court of Appeal judge Heather Hallett was picked to lead the inquiry and more than six weeks since she recommended terms of reference, they said.

The delay is a breach of the 2005 Inquiries Act, which requires the government to announce an inquiry’s start date “within a reasonable time” of appointing its chair, it is argued.

The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign called the wait of more than six months “unprecedented and totally inexplicable”.

“In the vast majority of inquiries, a setting-up date is given within days or weeks of the chair being appointed,” said Elkan Abrahamson, the group’s legal representative.

“The consequences are extremely serious, as it only becomes a criminal offence to destroy or tamper with evidence after the inquiry’s start date.

“By failing to give one, the prime minister is opening the door to key evidence being destroyed.”

Representatives from Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice at the Covid Memorial Wall

Mr Johnson has long been accused of dragging his heels in order to prevent likely damning conclusions about his response to the pandemic emerging before a general election in spring 2024.

Baroness Hallett’s report now seems certain to be published long after the election – after she revealed there will be no public hearings until next year.

In March, she wrote: “We will be ready to begin investigations once the terms of reference have been agreed. We shall gather evidence throughout the year and I hope to begin public hearings in 2023.”

However, the inquiry has still not been triggered – creating a vacuum in which the prime minister has argued more vociferously that he “got the big calls right” on Covid.

Yet the only inquiry that has taken place so far, led by two former Conservative cabinet ministers, called his response “one of the UK’s worst public health failures”.

Delaying lockdown in March 2020 – as a “herd immunity” strategy was explored – and failing to protect elderly and vulnerable people in care caused thousands of avoidable deaths, it found.

Jo Goodman, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice accused Mr Johnson of “lying to the faces of bereaved families”, by delaying the inquiry.

“He assured us he would begin the inquiry by spring 2022, a deadline that was already far too late – and here we are at the end of June with no progress,” she said.

The inquiry’s task will be vast, including the timing of lockdown decisions, the scientific advice sought, testing and PPE, the discharge of infected patients into care homes, the initial decision not to close borders and much more.

A Downing Street spokesperson said Mr Johnson had “consulted the devolved administrations” and that the terms of reference “will be published shortly”.

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