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A leading COVID Inquiry lawyer has warned that the chair of the official probe into the Government’s handling of the pandemic may have to quit if vital messages continue to be withheld by ministers.
The Government has confirmed it would mount a legal challenge to the inquiry chair’s demand for unredacted WhatsApp messages between Boris Johnson and a raft of senior figures during the pandemic, including with then Chancellor – and now Prime Minister – Rishi Sunak.
Speaking at a joint TUC/COVID Bereaved Families for Justice press conference, Elkan Abrahamson, head of major inquests and inquiries at Broudie Jackson Canter, and a solicitor for the bereaved families, said the Government’s legal challenge to hold back messages from Boris Johnson and other senior figures is a “power struggle” that chair Baroness Hallett must win.
“Politicians are saying it’s okay to sell WhatsApps in a book but not all right to disclose them to an inquiry,” he said. “The chair says she needs to see them. The only logical response will be to resign if not, as she won’t be able to do her job.”
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Families Demand Change
Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, lost his father to the virus in April 2020. He pointed out the crucial need for the inquiry to drive substantial change for the handling of future pandemics.
“We don’t want another inquiry that just becomes a stack of paper in a library that no one looks at,” he said, appealing directly to Sunak. “You hold the lives of the nation in your hands. It’s vital there is proper accountability.”
Tuckwood, a former frontline worker, gave a first-hand account of the NHS staff’s dire conditions during the pandemic.
“We were taping up gowns to the gloves,” he told journalists at the official press conference. “We didn’t have enough staff, PPE. I was working nights and staying in hospital accommodation during the day, away from my family… We were in a terrible situation in the NHS running up to the start of the pandemic… I find it really challenging to look back on that time.”
He said staff were deliberately dehydrating so they didn’t have to go to the toilet and remove their PPE.
Tuckwood stressed the need for full transparency from the Government: “Everyone who lost loved ones deserves to know there’s accountability for those mistakes. We were the ones who had to pick up the pieces.”
Hiding the Truth
TUC general secretary Paul Nowak told Byline Times that the Government’s legal challenge is down to it wanting to hide relevant material – though the Government argues that it is protecting politicians’ privacy and removing “unambiguously irrelevant information”.
“You can only presume it’s because they’ve got something to hide,” Nowak said. “And I think what we need, right at the outset of this inquiry, to start with a principle of openness and transparency.”
Boris Johnson is currently having his legal fees paid for by the taxpayer, despite earning millions in speaking fees since leaving office last year. Nowak said: “I think the public will wonder why, for example, the TUC and our unions who will call participants in this inquiry, we’ve received no public funding at all.
“That’s been the case for hundreds of thousands of union members who are working on the frontline during the pandemic. And yet… [the former] Prime Minister, who we know, wrote the laws around lockdown during COVID, is being handed taxpayers money.”
He added: “People are watching closely. This Government has lost trust in its ability to do the right thing. So it’s time for the Prime Minister to step up to the plate. Be open, honest and transparent. I think that’s what the British public wants.”
Speaking for bereaved families, Akinnola emphasised the need for “accountability”. He said his “dad cared for people” and that he wants “his legacy to be politicians accepting the lessons that need learning”.
He posed a question directly to Sunak: “Do you want to be antagonistic to the reasons for the inquiry? You hold the lives of the nation in your hands. It’s vital there is proper accountability.”
In addition to his warning regarding the chair’s potential resignation, Abrahamson emphasised the ongoing battle around the messages being handed to the inquiry: “It’s an existential struggle. Should take as long as necessary,” he said. However, he also expressed concerns over the swift progress of the inquiry, saying, “preparedness [for the pandemic] is being dealt with very quickly – I think too quickly.”
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Tuckwood underscored that the NHS was promised everything it needed after the pandemic but staff had to fight for a pay rise. “We’ve been forced to take industrial action to get the pay rise needed to stay in the health service,” he said.
“There’s quite a lot of cynicism – health workers need to be won over, and they need to be shown things can genuinely change.”
He added that the NHS is “not in much of a better place” since the pandemic as “we’re still missing all the key targets, we still don’t have enough staff to deliver the care we need. So I don’t think we can have any confidence that health services are any better to cope with another pandemic should it happen…
“Nurses saved Boris Johnson’s life – and he pledged that he’d had an epiphany and that things were going to change. They told us the NHS will get everything that is needed… I don’t see how we can have any confidence that [politicians have] learned the lessons. It’s traumatising. It’s difficult to think about what people went through but NHS staff are still going through this.”
Lawyer Elkan Abrahamson said it was vital that the COVID Inquiry heard directly from families affected by the pandemic – something that is not currently part of the agenda.
“You’ll often find people who’ve given evidence in other inquiries saying how they feel a weight is lifted from their shoulders, because they’ve finally been able to talk about their loved one,” he said. “And I think it’s doubly important here, because what happens in many inquiries, whether the fatalities are you bury your loved one, you go through a normal grieving process, and then it all comes up again, in the inquiry.
“Here, they haven’t even gone through that initial grieving process, because of the way funerals have had to take place or not take place. So many bereaved people say to us that hasn’t happened.
“This will be, in effect, the first manifestation of the grieving process and the first eruption of PTSD – I think, really, so. Having that opportunity, if not, personally, to talk about your loved one to hear other people talk about the loss of their loved one, would be enormously helpful to the inquiry.”
He also called for a new statutory duty of candour for politicians, requiring policy-makers to be fully honest in their public comments about the pandemic. “It’s all wasted if we don’t get answers – just tell the truth and be honest,” he said.
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