As COVID inquiry begins, bereaved families call for greater transparency

Lobby Akkinola has felt almost every emotion since his father’s death just over three years ago. 

First, there was the overwhelming grief when Femi died with COVID in April 2020.

Then came the anger as Lobby desperately searched for answers in trying to understand why his 60-year-old father, a key worker, was left exposed and vulnerable to the killer disease – and the NHS could not help him as he collapsed dying on the floor of his home.

It was this anger that drove Lobby and thousands of other bereaved families to demand a public inquiry into the pandemic.

Lobby said: “We fought to get the government to set up the COVID inquiry and we did so because we know that to save lives in the future we need to learn lessons from mistakes in the handling of the pandemic.

“We want to honour the lives of our loved ones by making sure that their experiences are learnt from, so that nobody else has to go through the terrible suffering that we have.”

He added: “We want to hold the government to account, and most importantly we want the inquiry to provide recommendations that will change how this and other public health crises will be handled in the future.

More on Covid-19

“I believe the inquiry shares these goals and I expect it to do all it can to achieve them.”

There have been many public inquiries into disasters and nationally significant events – but perhaps none as important as this one.

Some 226,000 people have died as a direct result of COVID in this country alone.

Thousands more are struggling with severe complications as a result of an infection, and the long-term legacy of missed cancer diagnoses.

The impact on the nation’s mental health will also be felt for years to come.

Health leaders will want to know how to better protect their patients, staff and services in the next health emergency.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player


COVID inquiry: Everything you need to know

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said: “The pandemic has had – and continues to have – a deep and lasting impact on the health and care sector.

“The NHS and its staff went above and beyond during that unprecedented time.

“It is important that the inquiry explores how well prepared the country was for a pandemic and that actionable lessons are learned from the inquiry as it progresses.”

Where other inquiries have had a single focus – such as the Grenfell Tower fire or the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war – the COVID inquiry’s terms of reference are wide-ranging.

It will span health and social care, lockdowns, tests and trace, education, science, epidemiological and modelling data, vaccine procurement and rollout, and the economy among other things.

Millions of government documents will need to be examined.

But at the heart of this inquiry are the people who have suffered loss.

The inquiry’s chair Lady Heather Hallet, a retired judge, will open the inquiry on Tuesday morning with a short, powerful film containing some testimonies recorded by bereaved families.

The group COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, representing some 6,000 relatives, has asked for its lawyers to cross-examine witnesses and was left disappointed when its request for families to give testimony in person was rejected on grounds of logistics.

Instead, family members will be included through an online portal called Every Story Matters.

Lobby wants this decision to be reversed.

“I hope the inquiry will call more bereaved family members as witnesses to give evidence to all the modules including module one.

“None of the 20 family members we put forward for module one have been called.

“Not everyone can give evidence but without learning from the experiences of a proportionate number of our members, how can the inquiry properly evaluate the decisions made by those in charge?

“We bore the consequences of those decisions and should be heard if the expectation is to become reality.”

The inquiry will run into summer 2026 and is divided into separate modules each dealing with a specific area.

The first will cover the country’s “resilience and preparedness”.

But it is the one that follows in the autumn that will attract the most interest.

Module two – “core UK decision-making and political governance” – will focus on choices made at the heart of the then prime minister Boris Johnson’s government.

Read more:
COVID inquiry – Everything you need to know
Baroness Hallett: Who is the chair of the COVID inquiry?

The advantage Lady Hallet and her team of lawyers led by Hugo Keith KC have is that the evidence and material presented to the inquiry is contemporaneous.

Other inquiries have had to rely on faded testimonies heard long after the event itself.

Boris Johnson and his key ministers should have fresh memories of the actions they took – and just as importantly perhaps did not take – from January 2020 onwards.

A list of 150 questions sent by Lady Hallett to Boris Johnson in February includes whether he said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than order a second lockdown, or likened COVID to swine flu.

She also wants to know why he missed several meetings of the government’s emergency COBRA taskforce.

The days leading up to this inquiry have been overshadowed by the controversy over WhatsApp messages and notes shared on Google Spaces by Boris Johnson and his decision-makers.

Lady Hallet has been blocked from these messages by the government, which is seeking a judicial review into the matter – arguing not all the information is COVID-related.

She has argued that she alone should be responsible for making that decision. Legal experts agree and think the government is unlikely to succeed.

That will be an important early win for the inquiry and its chair.

Only transparency can help this inquiry to deliver its ultimate objective of getting to the truth to ensure the country is better prepared for the next pandemic.