Boris Johnson will give evidence under oath to a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis if he is asked to do so, Downing Street has confirmed.
The Prime Minister announced at lunchtime that a formal probe into the response to the pandemic will start in Spring 2022 as he said key players will be put ‘under the microscope’.
The PM said witnesses will give evidence ‘in public and under oath’ as the nation tries to ‘learn lessons’ to ensure the UK is ‘better prepared’ for a future health crisis.
Number 10 said this afternoon that Mr Johnson would be willing to give evidence under oath should he be invited to do so.
‘The Prime Minister will conform to what is required for the inquiry, yes,’ the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said.
The proposed timing of the inquiry sparked an immediate backlash as Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said it should start ‘as soon as possible’ as he demanded to know why it cannot get under way ‘later this year’.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group which has long been calling for an inquiry, said that ‘Spring 2022 is simply too late to begin’.
Mr Johnson defended the timing as he said it is not possible to begin until next Spring as there is a risk of ‘diverting or distracting’ ministers and officials while they are still trying to manage the UK’s recovery.
The terms of reference have also yet to be thrashed out with the devolved administrations.
Mr Johnson said he hoped the inquiry could be completed in a ‘reasonable timescale’ but expectations are it will take years.
The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war went on for seven years, while the Bloody Sunday inquiry took around 12 years.
Should a similar timeline be repeated for the Covid inquiry it could potentially take the sting out of any criticism of Mr Johnson’s government for being too slow to lock down the country.
The report will almost certainly not be published before the next general election, which is currently set to take place in 2024.
Boris Johnson will give evidence under oath to a public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis if he is asked to do so, Downing Street has confirmed. Pictured: Mr Johnson elbow bumps actress Helena Bonham Carter, at Westminster Abbey’s annual service for the Florence Nightingale Foundation today, to mark nurses’ contribution to the community
The proposed timing of the inquiry sparked an immediate backlash as Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said it should start ‘as soon as possible’ as he demanded to know why it cannot get under way ‘later this year’
Could spread of Indian variant jeapordise plans to ease lockdown? Strain is now DOMINANT in four areas and may be behind 12% spike in Covid cases nationally
Analysis by one of the UK’s biggest variant trackers warns the strain is focused in hotspots Bolton and neighbour Blackburn with Darwen, where outbreaks have exploded with numbers of positive tests from all variants rising 93 and 86 per cent in a week, respectively – more than half have been proven to be the Indian strain.
The mutant virus is also confirmed to make up more than 50 per cent of infections in Bedford and South Northamptonshire, although outbreaks in the two areas are still small. And up to half of all cases in London are thought to be down to the B.1.617.2 variant.
Boris Johnson said in a statement to Parliament today that the variant was ‘of increasing concern’, warning that a variant that could slip past vaccines would have ‘potential to cause even greater suffering than we endured in January’.
Experts warned today the variant may be behind the 12 per cent spike in Covid cases across the country, after the number of cases in the last week rose to 15,895 from 14,165 in the week before.
It comes after a Government minister refused to rule out tiered lockdowns in England when national restrictions come to an end next month. Environment Secretary George Eustice added they were ‘closely monitoring’ several outbreaks that had cropped up in recent weeks.
Mr Johnson told MPs this afternoon: ‘Amid such tragedy the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future – which is why I’ve always said when the time is right there should be a full and independent inquiry.
‘So, I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 – including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.
‘In establishing the inquiry, we will work closely with the devolved administrations.’
The PM said critics should be ‘mindful of the scale of that undertaking’ to hold an inquiry as he said he anticipated it would not start until Spring next year.
Mr Johnson said ‘we must not inadvertently divert and distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heat of our struggle against this disease’, as he warned of the threat posed by Covid variants and a potential spike in cases this Winter.
He added: ‘So I expect the right moment for the inquiry to begin is at the end of this period, in the Spring of next year, Spring 2022.’
Mr Johnson also declared that a UK Commission on Covid Commemoration will be set up to look at how to commemorate the victims of the pandemic.
Sir Keir said: ‘Can I clearly welcome the independent inquiry into the pandemic and the establishing of a UK commission on Covid commemoration.
‘Both are necessary, both will play an important part in learning the lessons and commemorating those we have lost.’
The Labour leader said the inquiry ‘will only work if it has the support and confidence’ of bereaved families as he urged the Government to consult them at the earliest opportunity.
On the timing issue, Sir Keir said: ‘The principle is that the inquiry should be as soon as possible. As soon as possible.
‘Now, I understand that an inquiry, a statutory inquiry, will take time to set up, of course it will. But why can it not be later this year? Why can it not start earlier?’
Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats who first called for an inquiry in April last year, said: ‘From the failed test, trace and isolate system to the crisis in our care homes, Boris Johnson and his Government have no end of questions to answer so I welcome this inquiry in spite of it being 13 months after the Liberal Democrats first called for it.
England’s Covid vaccine drive will open up to under-40s TOMORROW with bookings only available for 38 and 39 year olds at sites with stocks of Pfizer and Moderna
The coronavirus vaccine programme in England will open up to people under the age of 40 for the first time tomorrow.
An NHS Digital bulletin showed those aged 38 and 39 will be invited to come forward for their jab from Thursday morning.
They will be offered either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine on the back of new guidance from medical regulators last week.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said under-40s should be given an alternative to the AstraZeneca jab due to its link to rare blood clots.
The NHS Digital bulletin said 38 and 39-year-olds already booked in for a first dose of the British vaccine will have their appointment cancelled.
People who qualify for a jab will invited via a text from ‘NHSvaccine’, which includes a web link to the health service’s online booking service.
Those who can’t access the internet can call 119 instead to get an appointment at one of 1,600 sites administering the vaccines across England.
So far more than a quarter of the entire UK population – 18.1million – has been fully vaccinated against Covid and more than half – 35m – have received the first dose.
‘This Coronavirus inquiry must have the teeth necessary to hold this Government’s feet to the fire on their wrong-doings.
‘Lessons must be learnt from the mistakes that were made throughout this crisis and the Government must be held to account for their handling of the pandemic.’
In a statement, Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, said: ‘It’s a huge relief to hear the Prime Minister commit to the statutory inquiry that bereaved families have been calling for – one with the power to compel witnesses.
‘But there are still further steps needed to ensure we all get the answers we need as a country.
‘First and foremost any inquiry must involve bereaved families from the start, helping to choose the chair as well as determining the terms of reference. Whilst we welcome the Prime Minister’s assurances that bereaved families will be consulted on this, the devil will be in the detail.
‘Secondly, Spring 2022 is simply too late to begin.
‘It sounds like common sense when the Prime Minister says that an inquiry can wait until the pandemic is over, but lives are at stake with health experts and scientists warning of a third wave later this year.
‘A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter.’
Downing Street said this afternoon that Mr Johnson would be willing to give evidence under oath to the inquiry if he is asked to do so.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister will conform to what is required for the inquiry, yes.’
The spokesman also said there is no deadline for selecting a chairman to lead the probe.
Number 10 declined to say whether the inquiry will report back before the next general election.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘The timescale is down to the chairman, that is something that we will want to agree with the chairperson when they are appointed.
‘Some inquiries have had timescales and, as is sadly the case, sometimes inquiries don’t stick to those timescales, but we will make clear when we set out terms of reference whether there’s a timescale, and obviously we will want to discuss timing with the chairperson as and when we pick them.’
Mr Johnson had a meeting of the Covid-O committee this morning to iron out the details of the inquiry and who will run it.
In the House of Commons yesterday, Mr Johnson committed to starting the inquiry ‘within this session’ of Parliament – a Parliamentary session usually lasts around a year.
Downing Street had been reluctant to commit to a timeframe for the inquiry, saying it was too busy focusing on the pandemic and citing ‘the Government’s workload’.
The inquiry will explore the chain of events that led to the deaths of more than 127,000 people since the pandemic began, with 20 per cent more care home residents dying than in a normal year.
England’s national lockdown will ease even further from next Monday with indoor socialising, overnight stays, restaurant dining and holidays all back on the cards.
Another 2,474 positive tests were announced in the UK yesterday along with 20 deaths.
Mr Johnson greets Sergeant Sebastian Mwaura from the Defence Medical Group, at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday
Boris Johnson elbow greets a nurse at Wednesday’s annual service for the Florence Nightingale foundation
Public Health England has divided the Indian variant into three sub-types. Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. Type 1 and 3 have a slightly different set of mutations. The graphic shows all the different variants that have been spotted in Britain
Dominic Cummings to lift lid on Number 10 in second meeting with MPs in May
Mr Cummings is due to be grilled on the Government’s response to the pandemic by a joint session of the health and science select committees on May 26.
Downing Street will be on red alert ahead of his appearance amid a bitter briefing war between the PM and his former chief aide.
Reports suggested that Mr Cummings could use his appearance to discuss whether ‘herd immunity’ was ever an official Government strategy.
In a session on March 17, Cummings branded Whitehall a ‘disaster zone’ and said bureaucracy ‘destroys’ effective operations and ‘drives out’ the best people in the government.
In a brutal assault on Mr Hancock and his department, Mr Cummings said the PPE and therapeutics efforts were a ‘smoking ruin’.
Mr Johnson said in Parliament yesterday: ‘I have made that clear before… I do believe it’s essential we have a full, proper public inquiry into the Covid pandemic.’
The full public inquiry will likely mean hearing from many witnesses from different parts of government and the health service to find out how well they coped with Covid.
NHS and care staff may air grievances about shortages of masks, gloves and aprons at the start of the outbreak.
The PPE scandal left some hospital workers wearing bin bags to try and protect themselves or wearing the same masks for longer than they should have.
The care home sector said during the first wave that the government was failing to supply PPE as promised, risking further outbreaks in the already-crippled industry.
And Government insiders will shed light on the decisions that led to each of the UK’s three lockdowns.
Mr Johnson has been criticised for being too slow to act in March last year and again in the autumn, when scientists called for a lockdown weeks before one was announced in November.
Public Health England’s lack of available testing capacity – which made it almost impossible for anyone to get tested in the first wave – will likely come under fire.
The announcement of the inquiry comes as Number 10 is on red alert ahead of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former chief aide, appearing in front of MPs later this month.
Earlier this year Mr Cummings branded the Department of Health a ‘smoking ruin’ and he has vowed to spill the beans on Downing Street’s response to the crisis when he gives evidence to the health and science select committees on May 26.
Mr Cummings could be one of the figures most dangerous to Mr Johnson in an inquiry because of the access he had behind the doors of Number 10.
Boris Johnson last night announced a major loosening of lockdown rules for next Monday
Giving evidence to MPs on March 17, Mr Cummings branded Whitehall a ‘disaster zone’ and said bureaucracy ‘destroys’ effective operations and ‘drives out’ the best people in the government.
He said at the time: ‘It’s not coincidental that the vaccine programme worked the way that it did. To do that we had to take it out of the DoH, we had to have it authorised very directly by the PM and strip away all the normal nonsense that we can see is holding back funding therapeutics… No10 took it out of the Department of Health.’
He went on: ‘In spring 2020 you have a situation where DoH was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that.
‘You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics on Covid. So that was the kind of context for it.
‘Patrick Vallance then came to No10 and said this shouldn’t be run out of the Department for Health, we should create a separate task force.
‘We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail debacle.
‘Therefore Patrick Vallance, the Cabinet Secretary, me and some others said obviously we should take this out of the DoH. Obviously we should create a separate task force.’