Britain’s COVID-19 response inquiry enters second phase with political decisions in the spotlight

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s inquiry into the response to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the nation entered its second phase Tuesday, with political decision-making around major developments, such as the timing of lockdowns, set to take center stage.

Much criticism preceded the start of the so-called Module 2, the second of four planned phases of the inquiry, as it was set to hear in person only from one bereaved family member. Representatives of the bereaved have said that the lack of more live testimonies is “deeply concerning.”

Chair Judge Heather Hallett insisted that the voices of the bereaved will not be ignored.

This stage of the inquiry will focus on the British government’s actions during the crisis between Jan. 2020, when it first became evident that the virus was spreading around the world, and June 2022, when the inquiry was set up. The first phase, which concluded in July, looked at the country’s preparedness for the pandemic.

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“The focus of Module 2 will be on governance and key decision-making at a high level in the United Kingdom during the time when the pandemic was at its worst, and when it caused so much suffering,” said Hallett, who is a judge at Britain’s Court of Appeal in London.

After Hallett’s introduction, the inquiry heard emotional video testimonies from families who lost loved ones or whose children have suffered long-term physical and mental effects of the virus, so-called long COVID.

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The U.K. had one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks, with around 230,000 coronavirus-related deaths up to Sept. 28, according to government statistics.

An array of experts and politicians are set to testify during the current phase. The decisions of Boris Johnson, who was prime minister during the pandemic, will be in particular focus. Johnson was forced to stand down as leader in Sept. 2022, partly because of lockdown-flouting parties in his office during the pandemic.

Hallett acknowledged calls for more bereaved people to be brought in as witnesses, but said there was not enough time to hear more.

“The need for me to reach conclusions and make recommendations to reduce suffering in the future when the next pandemic hits the U.K. is pressing,” she said. “I say when the next pandemic hits the U.K., because the evidence in Module 1 suggested it is not if another pandemic will hit us, but when.”

But the bereaved pressed on with their criticism.

“Only bereaved families know the true cost of the mishandling of the pandemic,” said Rivka Gottlieb, who lost her dad Michael in April 2020, at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in the U.K.

“If the inquiry intends to learn lessons and save lives, it needs to hear from those who know, better than anyone, exactly how decisions made by the government failed on the ground,” said Gottlieb, who is a member of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

The second phase of the inquiry hearings is to end on Dec. 14.

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