Boris Johnson has promised families who lost loved ones due to coronavirus that a president of the public inquiry will be appointed before Christmas, when he was accused of adding “insult to injury” by delaying meeting with them for more than one year.
That prime minister held talks with members of COVID-19 Grieving families for justice in Downing Street on Tuesday.
In May, he announced an independent public inquiry in the government’s handling of the pandemic begins in the spring of next year.
“Although we wish this meeting had taken place a long time ago, we are pleased that the Prime Minister has finally chosen to engage with us and that he explicitly acknowledged the importance of ensuring that bereaved families are at the heart of learn from the pandemic, “the group said in a statement after the meeting.
“However, we are still disappointed by the lack of urgent policy shown by the Prime Minister, as we see no reason why preparations for the survey cannot begin now, especially as almost 1,000 people are still losing their lives every week.”
They said Johnson should live up to his commitments, adding: “We hope we can accept the Prime Minister’s commitments in good faith and in the future that there will be an ongoing and meaningful dialogue with bereaved families.”
The group had requested that the meeting be held outside with social distance in place.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has promised that the chairman of the inquiry will be appointed before Christmas.
“He stated that at the moment it is true that public servants continue to focus their efforts on tackling the pandemic before moving on to the inquiry in the spring of next year.
He welcomed the opportunity to hear from Bereaved Families 4 Justice on the areas they would like the inquiry to cover and the importance of electing the right chairman and panelists, and reiterated that he takes full responsibility for the government’s handling of the pandemic.
“The Prime Minister welcomed the proposal that the inquiry should hold hearings in different parts of the country.”
Johnson also suggested that the National COVID Memorial Wall could become a permanent national memorial for those who lost during the pandemic.
Subsequently, he spoke of it as a “very emotional meeting”.
“I listened to their very sad stories of the loss they have suffered in their own lives,” the prime minister said.
“And of course there is very little I could say to alleviate their own suffering. But what I said was that we were determined to ensure that the experience of the bereaved was something we took into account in the public inquiry.
“And I also said a little bit about how we were going to set it up, and I said we wanted to make sure we had a president for the study that was nominated before the end of the year.”
The campaign group hosted an event on the outskirts of the Labor Party conference in Brighton when the negotiations took place.
MP Jack Dromey said it added “insult to injury” that the prime minister only now met bereaved families, 398 days after undertakes to do so first.
“The simple, inevitable truth is that mistakes were made, catastrophic mistakes were made. As a consequence of which thousands of those who died should never have died,” he told the event.
Dromey added that it was “absolutely central” that the terms of reference of the investigation have been agreed with bereaved families, as well as that there is “full disclosure of all confidential documents” to understand why the government made the decisions it made.
Labor MP Afzal Khan said he had no “doubt” that the Conservatives wanted to “delay” and “dilute” the investigation, adding that pressure must be maintained to ensure this does not happen.
He described the government’s handling of the pandemic as “completely inadequate” and accused ministers of “sleeping” at all stages.
“I believe mistakes have been made.”
Speaking to Sky News after the event, Mr Khan responded to Mr Johnson’s promise.
“I welcome this, it’s something the bereaved families have been pushing for,” a Member of Parliament who lost his mother, mother-in-law and father-in-law told COVID.
“But it’s also about the terms of reference now, what will the terms of reference be?
“It also needs to be clarified. The faster we can nail it down, the better it is for everyone, because it is urgent that we learn our homework and prevent further loss of life.”
Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said bereaved families “have been waiting too long for this inquiry” and added: “It is crucial that this inquiry is properly independent and has the full confidence of the bereaved.
“The government must consult them in the election of the chairman and the preparation of the terms of reference.”