Public support for a statutory public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is running more than twice as high as opposition to the idea, exclusive polling for the Guardian has revealed.
Robert Booth www.theguardian.com
As a growing number of doctors, nurses, scientists and the bereaved call on the prime minister to trigger a formal independent investigation, 47% of people said they supported a public inquiry which has legal powers to compel people to give evidence under oath. Only 18% said they were opposed. 35% said they neither supported or opposed it or didn’t know, according to polling carried out by ICM last weekend.
The top priority among those wanting an inquiry was an investigation into the government’s preparedness for a pandemic which has left the UK with the highest mortality rate of any of the world’s largest economies. The death toll among people who tested positive reached 125,690 on Tuesday.
Those polled believe an inquiry’s next highest priorities should be examining how the UK controlled the movement of people through its borders and the timing and strategy of lockdowns, which epidemiologists have already concluded cost lives.
The focus on lockdowns comes amid reports that the prime minister Boris Johnson now regrets not locking down earlier in March 2020 and that he believes the advice he was receiving about infection spread was based on out of date projections.
Protection of care home residents, around 40,000 of whom died with Covid; the provision and procurement of PPE, which has been mired in allegations of cronyism; and the effectiveness of NHS test and trace, which parliament’s public accounts committee last week said had failed to avert further lockdowns despite a £37bn two-year budget, were the next priorities.
The highest levels of support for a statutory inquiry are in the north of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and the south-west, the poll revealed.
It follows calls by scientists, doctors, nurses, the bereaved and minority ethnic leaders for Boris Johnson to finally announce an independent inquiry with powers to compel witnesses to attend and to order the disclosure of documents. Downing Street said this week “now is not the right time to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry”.
A government spokesperson said: “There will be an appropriate time in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this global pandemic.”
Senior figures in the UK’s Covid response including Prof John Edmunds and Prof Andrew Hayward, who sit on the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), have spoken in support of an inquiry, while the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said it would be “criminal not to learn lessons”.
Amid increasing pressure on the prime minister to set up a statutory inquiry, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing also called for an inquiry, while Lord Woolley, the former chair of the advisory group to the government’s race disparity unit, said a public examination into the impact of Covid, which has disproportionately hit BAME communities, is a chance to rethink the nation’s social infrastructure.
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which represents more than 2,800 families who lost loved ones during the pandemic, welcomed the poll as vindication of its calls since last summer for a full public inquiry.
“It’s as plain as day we need a proper public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic,” said Jo Goodman, co-founder of the group, who lost her father, Stuart, to Covid. “Just one in five people think otherwise and as more and more information comes to light ever more people are realising how crucial this is for the whole country. This is a generation-defining crisis and if the government doesn’t learn from its mistakes then how will it save lives in the future.”
But in a sign that a decision on launching an inquiry – which is in the hands of the prime minister – could become highly political, the poll of more than 2,000 adults showed that Labour and Liberal Democrat voters at the 2019 general election were almost twice as likely to want an inquiry as Conservative supporters. The prime minister is likely to consider the impact of any conclusions from a public inquiry which could take several years may co-incide on the next general election expected no later than May 2024. Opponents of a public inquiry fear it could take years and an adversarial process that places as much emphasis on accountability as learning may hinder rather than help attempts to correct mistakes, in the short term at least.