A mammoth three-year public inquiry into the U.K. government’s handling of the response to COVID-19 opened Tuesday by asking if some suffering and death could have been avoided with better planning — and whether Britain’s complex, protracted exit from the European Union distracted authorities from preparing for potential threats.
Lawyer Hugo Keith, who is counsel to the inquiry, said the coronavirus pandemic had brought “death and illness on an unprecedented scale” in modern Britain. He said that COVID-19 had been recorded as a cause of death for 226,977 people in the U.K.
“The key issue is whether that impact was inevitable,” Keith said. “Were those terrible consequences inexorable, or were they avoidable or capable of mitigation?”
A group of people who lost relatives to COVID-19 held pictures of their loved one outside the inquiry venue, an anonymous London office building. The first day of public hearings began with a 17-minute video in which people described the devastating impact of the pandemic on them and their loved ones.
Retired judge Heather Hallett, who is leading the inquiry, praised the families’ “dignified vigil.” She said the inquiry was taking place “on their behalf and on behalf of the millions who suffered and continue to suffer” because of COVID-19.
Britain’s pandemic death toll is one of the highest in Europe, and the decisions of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government have been endlessly debated. Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold an inquiry after pressure from bereaved families.
The inquiry is due to hold hearings until 2026. It will investigate the U.K.’s preparedness for a pandemic, how the government responded and what lessons can be learned for the future.
Senior scientists and officials including Johnson are expected to appear as witnesses. Hallett, who has the power to summon evidence and question witnesses under oath, is currently in a legal battle with the government over her request to see an unedited trove of notebooks, diaries and WhatsApp messages between Johnson and other officials.
U.K. public inquiries are often thorough, but rarely quick. An inquiry into the 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath began in 2009 and issued its 2.6-million word report in 2016.
Hallett says she will release findings after each section, rather than waiting until hearings conclude.
Keith said the first section would look at whether British planning relied too heavily on the mistaken assumption a future pandemic would resemble influenza.
He said that at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the government had said that “the United Kingdom was well prepared to respond in a way that offered substantial protection to the public.”
“Even at this stage, before hearing the evidence, it is apparent that we might not have been very well prepared at all,” he said.
Keith also said planning for Britain’s exit from the EU, which consumed government energies for years after voters backed Brexit in a 2016 referendum, distracted resources from work to prepare for potential pandemics.
“That departure required an enormous amount of planning and preparation, particularly to address what were likely to be the severe consequences of a no-deal exit on food and medicine supplies, travel and transport, business borders and so on,” he said.
“It is clear that such planning, from 2018 onwards, crowded out and prevented some or perhaps a majority of the improvements that central government itself understood were required to be made to resilience planning and preparedness.”