PM promises bereaved families a Covid inquiry chair by Christmas

A chair will be appointed by Christmas to the public inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic and sessions should take place around the country, Boris Johnson has told the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group.

The delegation of five people who lost loved ones to the virus also said the prime minister had described the wall of 150,000 hand-drawn red hearts, which the group had initiated in May opposite parliament in London as a guerrilla memorial to the deceased, as “a strong candidate” to become the pandemic’s official memorial.

He told them that while it was not his decision: “I support it, it’s very moving”. He said he would be the minister in formal charge of the public inquiry and supported the idea of the inquiry holding sessions in different parts of the country.

The group counts more than 4,000 families as members and has been pressing the government for an urgent start to the inquiry. Johnson had previously only said the statutory inquiry would start in spring 2022.

The people who met Johnson were Jo Goodman, co-founder of the group, Fran Hall, Lobby Akinnola, Charlie Williams and Hannah Brady. They were joined by Elkan Abrahamson, a Liverpool-based lawyer who previously represented families affected by the Hillsborough stadium disaster.

They said in a statement after the meeting that they were pleased Johnson had chosen to finally engage with them, but added: “However, we are still disappointed by the lack of urgency the prime minister displayed as we see no reason why preparations for the inquiry cannot begin now, particularly as nearly 1,000 people are still losing their lives each week.

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“What really matters is what happens next. The prime minister must appoint a chair as soon as possible and he must stick to his commitment to bereaved families having a role in deciding the chair and the terms of reference. We hope that we can accept the prime minister’s commitments in good faith and, going forward, that there will be ongoing and meaningful dialogue with bereaved families.”

Johnson asked the group to provide possible names for the chair, but Goodman questioned whether appointing a chair by the end of the year would mean hearings would start in spring.

Goodman, whose father, Stuart, died in April 2020, said: “It was very emotional for all of us to be able to look the prime minister in the eye and tell the prime minister what happened to our loved ones. It felt like it was a long time coming and it was difficult when you think if the engagement had happened earlier it could have made a difference … At the moment over 100 lives are being lost [daily]. Even if five are preventable, its worth that effort to get the ball rolling now.”

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister gave a commitment that the chair of the inquiry would be appointed by Christmas. He set out that for now it is right 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 for Justice on the areas they would like the inquiry to cover and the importance of choosing the right chair and panel members, and reiterated that he takes full responsibility for the government’s handling of the pandemic. The prime minister welcomed the suggestion that the inquiry should hold hearings in different parts of the country.”

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The meeting took place 398 days after Johnson first promised to meet the bereaved in August 2020.

The eventual meeting on Tuesday lunchtime took place outdoors at the request of the group to ensure that social distancing was maintained and it was Covid secure. It was a pointed request after maskless ministers were photographed squeezed around the Cabinet table.


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