Keir Starmer has welcomed Boris Johnson’s announcement of the start date for a public inquiry into the handling of the health crisis by the government but asked the Prime Minister why the process could not begin this year.
Addressing the Commons this afternoon, following a statement from the Prime Minister informing parliament that the inquiry will begin in spring 2022, the Labour leader asked Johnson: “Why can it not start earlier?
“The principle is that the inquiry should be as soon as possible – as soon as possible. Now, I understand a statutory inquiry will take time to set up,” Starmer said. “But why could it not be later this year?”
He asked the Prime Minister whether spring 2022 will see the investigation begin taking evidence, or whether this process could begin throughout the course of this year in anticipation of the inquiry.
“They’re two very different things,” he said. “Because if it’s the latter, the inquiry won’t be for many months. If it is to open, formally, to start taking evidence in spring of 2022, I’d be really grateful if the Prime Minister could make that clear.”
Johnson said spring 2022 is “the right timing”. He argued it “would be wrong to devote, to consecrate huge amounts of official time, of public health workers time, to an inquiry when they may very well be still in the middle of a pandemic”.
Starmer urged Johnson to ensure that the government consults with bereaved families “at the earliest possible moment”, telling the Prime Minister that “this inquiry will only work if it has the support and confidence of the families”.
“The government should also consult those on the frontline who have done so much, whether the NHS, social care or other frontlines that we’ve seen, because they too deserve answers,” the Labour leader added.
He also said the government should engage widely who chairs the inquiry. “The wider the engagement on that question, the wider the likely support for the inquiry,” Starmer told Johnson. “What we need as an independent inquiry, which has the full support of everybody, so that its conclusions bear real authority.”
Labour has repeatedly pushed for the government to launch an inquiry into its handling of Covid. Starmer said last month that autumn would be a “good opportunity” as restrictions will have lifted by then and people will be vaccinated.
Trade union figures, the TUC and the party backed the calls from bereaved families for the Prime Minister to set a start date for the inquiry on International Workers’ Memorial Day in April, and said it should begin “as soon as possible”.
Government lawyers recently rejected calls for an inquiry to start now, 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.
Research carried out by ICM earlier this year 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.
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