UK: Legal experts and campaigners call for public inquiry into Government handling of COVID-19

Public Interest Law Centre and 70 organisations write to Government demanding an independent and rigorous public inquiry

UK has one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in Europe – between 43,000 and 65,000 people have died

‘This is not a moment for delay or excuses, we demand answers now to ensure that a second wave does not have the same devastating effects’ - Paul Heron

Over 70 legal, campaigning and civil society organisations are calling for an urgent public inquiry into the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Public Interest Law Centre, supported by Amnesty International UK and over 70 legal, campaigning and civil society organisations, have written to the Prime Minister setting out their concerns at the record number of deaths in the UK and calling for an independent inquiry to explore the Government’s decision-making in this crisis. They say that there are questions that need answering as to whether the death rate in the UK is in part the product of political choices, or even of serious government failings.

Given any such proper Inquiry is likely to take some time, the organisations also  endorse the urgent aims set out by the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Group in their petition dated 11 June 2020, to try and prevent unnecessary deaths during any second wave of the virus.

Paul Heron, solicitor at the Public Interest Law Centre, said:

“In acting for the Law Centres Network we note that deaths stemming from the handling of the current pandemic is of disproportionate compared to other countries. This is not a moment for delay or excuses, we demand answers now to ensure that a second wave does not have the same devastating effects, and in the long term to ensure lessons are learnt for the future.

“Acting on behalf of the Law Centres Network and with support from 70+ civil society and grassroots organisations, we are asking the Government to respond as a matter of urgency and within 7 days. If the Government refuses to grant an urgent interim inquiry and followed by a full-scale public inquiry, we will be discussing with our clients their right to bring judicial review proceedings.” 

Kate Allen, Amnesty UK Director, said:

“It is hard to imagine a more important and pressing set of questions than those arising from the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“From the dire situation in care homes to an apparent failure to adequately tackle racial disparities in the harm caused by the virus, the Government’s approach needs thorough investigation.

“We must learn lessons from this current crisis if we want to prevent unnecessary deaths in the future, and ensure accountability for those who are suffering. An independent inquiry into the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is urgently needed.”

Between 43,000  and 65,000  people have died in the UK as a result of Coronavirus, and counting - the figure represents one of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in Europe, and the second largest number of absolute excess deaths in the world.

The organisations are demanding a full-scale public inquiry into the Government’s decision making and approach to controlling the infection both prior to and during its peak, as well as in its aftermath, in particular in the following areas, which are far from exhaustive:

1. Imposing stringent infection control measures

Initially, the UK Government appears to have ignored the severity of the risk posed by COVID-19, admitting that the virus was likely to spread, but advising people to wash their hands and ‘go about business as usual.’

It wasn’t until 23 March 2020 that the UK Government imposed lockdown measures across the country. 

2. Providing adequate personal protective equipment

The evident failure to provide proper PPE has increased exposure to infection for all health workers including doctors, nurses, cleaning staff and porters.

The lack of PPE has led to the deaths of 219 healthcare workers so far, more than 60% of whom were from BAME backgrounds.

3. Protecting care homes from the virus

Over 22,000 care home residents have died as a result of COVID-19 in the UK. The Government has seemingly failed to control the outbreak of infection within care homes at an early stage.

Later, in an effort to free up hospital beds, many NHS patients were discharged to care homes which seems to have led to the number of outbreaks spreading from 33 at the beginning of March, to 793 by the end of the month. 

It was not until 8 June 2020 that the Government announced to roll out home testing to all care homes, regardless of whether staff or residents have symptoms.

4. Test, trace and isolate

Despite advice from the World Health Organisation that the most effective way to tackle the virus was via testing and contact tracing, on 12 March 2020 the UK Government decided to halt community testing.

5. Mitigating the disproportionate impact on BAME communities

Those from BAME backgrounds are over represented among deaths by as many as 27%.  A third of critically ill patients in hospital have been from BAME backgrounds,  whilst making up only 13% of the population.

It is clearly indicated that many of these deaths are caused by existing health, economic and social inequalities, underpinned by a deeply embedded system of structural racism and discrimination. 

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