LONDON (AFP): An inquiry probing the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic kicks off Tuesday with the investigation mired in controversy even before the first witness is called.
The inquiry chair, retired senior judge Heather Hallett, has called for ex-prime minister Boris Johnson’s unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks to be handed over, prompting a legal challenge from the government of his successor Rishi Sunak.
Sunak, who was finance minister during the pandemic, has denied trying to block the material while Johnson is said to be in favour of it being shared.
Relatives of Covid-19 victims have also taken aim at the investigation saying it will be a “farce” if bereaved families are not able to testify.
The UK suffered one of the worst Covid-19 death tolls in Europe with more than 128,500 fatalities recorded by mid-July 2021.
The first phase of the inquiry will focus on the UK’s resilience and preparedness in the face of the global health emergency.
Established by Johnson in 2021 it will be split up into six sections and begin with an opening statement by Hallett, who previously oversaw the coroner’s inquests into the 52 people killed in the July 7, 2005 London bombings.
It will be followed by a short film showing the impact of the pandemic.
The first witnesses to give evidence in person to the inquiry will be leading epidemiologists Jimmy Whitworth and Charlotte Hammer on Wednesday.
But relatives of people who died from Covid-19 have condemned the decision not to include any of them in the inquiry’s first six-week phase.
‘Just a farce’
The Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group had put forward 20 people to be considered as witnesses for the first module, but said none had been called to give evidence.
“Without learning from the experiences of our members, how can the inquiry properly evaluate the decisions made by those in charge?” said group member Barbara Herbert, who lost her husband Paul to Covid.
“We are people that will be able to put reality to the theory that Hallett is testing, that has got to happen, otherwise it’s just a farce,” added Saleyha Ahsan, a doctor whose father Ahsan-ul-Haq Chaudry also died.
A spokeswoman for the inquiry said the chair had not ruled out calling testimony from bereaved people in later phases of the probe.
Public inquiries in the UK are government-funded but have an independent chair.
Hallett has refused to back down over her request for Johnson’s unredacted communications, likely to include exchanges at the heart of government relating to the ordering of three lockdowns in 2020 when Sunak was in charge of the country’s purse strings.
The government’s Cabinet Office, the department that supports the prime minister and oversees the running of government, has questioned the relevance of the material.
But Hallett has insisted it is for her to rule what is relevant to the investigation.
A judge is due to rule on the request at the end of June, with the material expected to be central to the inquiry’s second phase later in 2023 on government decision-making.
Later phases will focus on how the UK health service coped with the pandemic, vaccines and therapeutics, government procurement and the impact on the care sector.
The public hearings are scheduled to conclude by summer 2026.