“We owe it to them”: Labour movement urges PM to set date for Covid inquiry

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Trade union figures, the TUC and the Labour Party have backed the calls of bereaved families for Boris Johnson to now announce a starting date for the public inquiry into the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

As the labour movement prepared to mark International Workers’ Memorial Day today, Frances O’Grady of the TUC said: “We’ll forever be in the debt of the workers who died during this pandemic – nurses, carers, bus drivers and so many more.

“They lost their lives looking after our loved ones and keeping our country running in the hardest of times. We owe it to them, and to their families, to get on with the public inquiry. The Prime Minister must announce a date when it will start.”

The general secretary of the trade union federation said any inquiry into the response must look at why workers were put at risk, whether through inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or being unable to afford to self-isolate.

“This isn’t about settling scores,” O’Grady added. “It’s about getting answers and learning the lessons to save lives in future. On International Workers’ Memorial Day, we remember those who have died, and pledge ourselves to fight for safe workplaces for everyone.”

Alongside investigating the quality of decision-making across government during the height of the Covid pandemic, the TUC has recommended that the inquiry should cover:

  • Infection control and workplace safety, including the failure to provide adequate financial support to self-isolate, PPE availability for health and care staff throughout the crisis, the effectiveness of test and trace, and the failure to enforce the law on workplace safety;
  • The resilience and capacity of public services, including how prepared the NHS, social care, public health and local government were to deal with Covid, and the consequences of a decade of public spending cuts on pandemic preparedness across the public sector;
  • The unequal impact of Covid on different groups of workers, specifically Black and minority ethnic workers and insecure occupations among whom Covid mortality rates are disproportionately higher;
  • The effect of the government’s economic support packages to ensure workers stayed in employment and businesses did not go to the wall, and the impact of these decisions on unemployment, poverty rates and equality; and
  • Who government contracts were awarded to and why, and the impact this had on the quality and supply of PPE and other areas of public procurement.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Unite offers the bereaved families our full support in securing a permanent home for this incredible wall, and in the continued battle for the full and frank public inquiry the country needs.”

UNISON’s Christina McAnea declared that “only an independent judge-led public inquiry is good enough”. She said it must come “as soon as possible” and should “hear the voices of the key workers at the sharp end” of the health crisis.

“We urgently need a proper public inquiry,” GMB national secretary Reham Azam said, adding that Boris Johnson’s alleged comment that he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order a third lockdown showed why an investigation is needed.

TSSA transport union leader Manuel Cortes backed O’Grady’s call and said the government should “swiftly launch an investigation” into Covid, which he pointed out has seen the country suffer one of the highest death tolls in the world.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves last month backed calls for the government to begin the process of learning the lessons of the pandemic, arguing that ministers should kick off the inquiry in June by which the public health restrictions should be lifted.

The shadow minister for Cabinet Office urged ministers to work with bereaved families, telling Sky News: “They need to understand better what happened and they are desperate, really, for lessons to be learned from what has happened.”

Reeves demanded on Monday that ministers announce the public inquiry. Referring to the comments attributed to Johnson, she said: “This is all about conduct, character and decency. Frankly, our country deserves an awful lot better than this.”

Government lawyers earlier this week rejected calls for a coronavirus inquiry to start, writing to the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group to tell them that “an inquiry now is not appropriate” as there is “no capacity” for it.

In the six-page letter, it was claimed that “the very people who would need to give evidence to an inquiry are working round the clock” and that it is “not anticipated that the government’s workload will ease in the coming months”.

A spokesperson for the government told LabourList: “The government has said consistently that there will be opportunities to look back and learn lessons from our response to this unprecedented pandemic.

“The Prime Minister has confirmed this will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time but currently the government is rightly focused on protecting public health and saving lives through the vaccination programme and the Covid restrictions in place.”

Boris Johnson told parliament in July last year that “of course we will seek to learn the lessons of this pandemic in the future and certainly we will have an independent inquiry” but that it was at that time “not the right moment”.

Ministers have since repeatedly pushed back on calls for the inquiry to begin. Matt Hancock told a Covid press conference in March that an investigation was not needed in the near future and that “we’re learning lessons all the time”.

Also speaking at the briefing, deputy medical officer professor Jonathan Van-Tam told viewers that an inquiry would be an “unwelcome distraction for me personally at the moment when I’m very focused on the vaccine programme”.

Research carried out by ICM last month found that public support for a statutory Covid investigation into the government’s handling of the health crisis was twice that of those in opposition to the proposal.

47% of people said they supported a public inquiry that has legal powers to compel people to give evidence under oath, while only 18% said they were opposed. 35% reported that they were neither supportive or opposed, or did not know.

There will be a minute’s silence for International Workers’ Memorial Day at the National Covid Memorial Wall, made up of 150,000 painted hearts, at midday. Reeves will join top union figures to “walk the wall” with members of bereaved families.

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