The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, formed in March last year originally as a place for the bereaved to come together, have been campaigning for a full, independent, public inquiry to be held into the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic since June last year.
But as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week that now was not the time to hold such an involved review, grieving families insisted there were steps which could be taken now to learn lessons and save more lives.
Jamie Brown, whose father Tony died from coronavirus in March last year, and who is now the campaign’s spokesman, said: “We don't want to be sitting around waiting to find out in 10 years’ time ‘oh, wait, we should have done this’.
“There is a very real need to learn lessons now. And that's why we're calling for a rapid review phase public inquiry because the objective is to save people's lives now, because it's quite horrible.”
Mr Brown said had this already been done, lives may have been saved over the winter, and he pointed towards the Taylor review into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 which reported between football seasons in order to improve safety quickly.
He said if preliminary investigations were held now it would not be going “into every detail”, but “solely focusing on very key and glaring areas where there's been an awful lot of debate over where we could have done more”.
He said: “The first thing is, this should have been done already, and we've been proven right by the fact that we've seen an enormous spike in cases and deaths, 50 per cent of our deaths have come since November.
“The second is that while we're waiting for a vaccine, we still need to have every other aspect of our response and prevention scheme working as well as it possibly can do, and it's patently clear that it currently is not.”
And he said that action was required now because for any future, longer, investigation “it's vitally important that all of the evidence is kept and maintained”.
“So the earlier you start, the greater likelihood you have of the preservation of the evidence of decision making, which will feed into a later more detailed inquiry.”
The Taylor report after the Hillsborough disaster reported back in just 31 days to improve safety, he said.
“That was implemented in between seasons,” Mr Brown added. “So you can do things like this, it's just a different scale.”
This approach was backed by the TUC, whose General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Many working people have put their lives on the line in this pandemic, caring for the sick and keeping the nation running.
"A rapid review could improve their safety through the winter ahead. And it must be part of a full judge-led inquiry that takes evidence from the key workers who have cared for the nation.”
While Glenn Turp, northern regional director at the Royal College of Nursing, said: "A public inquiry needs to cover things that happened pre-pandemic. We failed a pandemic assessment in 2016 and we don't know - what did the government do as a result? In 2019, we were warned that we did not have enough resources to withstand a pandemic. That resulted in a lack of PPE, which put workers at risk, and we have seen a large number of healthcare workers die.
"We would hope lessons are being learned but the messages are constantly changing, which affects public confidence. This disease is very real and very dangerous, and the NHS is struggling every day."
Sir Keir Starmer met with the 2000-strong Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group this week, including Hull woman Jayne Taylor-Broadbent, whose wife Julie Taylor-Broadbent died in May.
Julie, a former social care worker, died in Hull Royal Infirmary after being rushed in with a burst ulcer and then developing Covid symptoms. She was just 49 years old and died four days shy of her 50th birthday, and was one of the more than 10,000 now having died from coronavirus in Yorkshire.
Jayne, 55, said Julie tested negative for coronavirus three times, but doctors and nurses at the hospital said they were treating her as a positive case and that her tests were likely to have been false negatives.
When it became clear that Julie would not recover, and she agreed with her medical team to withdraw oxygen treatment, Jayne was able to visit the hospital to say goodbye
Jayne said: “I want a public inquiry and it needs to be an immediate one.
“It’s been so badly mishandled, so lacking in protecting people.
“We didn’t lock down soon enough or hard enough.
“We seemed to just want to get back to normality as soon as possible.
“Things like Eat Out to Help Out and pubs reopening just spread the disease and it was so blatantly obvious it was going to happen.
“People like Julie and the others were collateral damage - it was worth it just to kick-start the economy. The Government put money before lives.
“We were promised a world-beating test, track and trace system and it’s still not there.
“Local authorities have just been pushed to one side. They should be given more chance to contribute, they know their areas.
“A public inquiry would highlight all these missed opportunities. I don’t want to blame the Government but I do want them to be held accountable.
“I want answers for why I lost Julie. They say if we locked down earlier, 20,000 lives could have been saved.
“One of those could have been Julie. Blaming somebody isn’t going to bring her back but holding someone accountable will save lives.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Kathryn de Prudhoe, whose father 60-year-old Tony Clay died after testing positive for coronavirus in April last year.
Ms de Prudhoe, from Leeds, is also a member of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice and wants to see investment in bereavement support for people who have lost loved ones in the pandemic.
She said: "It was about raising awareness and saying it is not only older people who have died.
"Younger, healthy people are dying too. So it was about sharing my story to stop the same thing happening to others."
Colin Angus, a senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield, said that while some things were inevitable, others were not.
He said: “More generally, I think a key failing has been the lack of a clear strategy.”
And he added: “After a year, it is still completely unclear whether our Government has a strategy, but has opted not to tell us what it is, or whether they don't have one at all. Once you have a clear strategy, then it is much easier to identify the measures you need to put in place to make that happen.
“Covid is a horrific disease and it is unrealistic to think that any realistic policy approach could have shielded us fully from its effects. But there was absolutely no need for things to be anywhere near as bad as they have been."
Yesterday the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has said that there will be time for reflection as we go forward but he doesn’t believe now is the right time for that given the fact that we continue to see high rates of infection across the country and the pressures the NHS face. That’s why the Prime Minister’s focus remains on doing everything we can to tackle the virus.”
Asked about the push for a rapid review, he added: “We do continue to learn the lessons and have better understanding of the virus. It remains the case that we are continuing to test - and we have one of the best genomic sequencing programmes in the world - so we continue to learn about treatments.”
He added: “We continue to learn about the virus and we continue to take action where we think we need to in order to reduce the transmission.”
Speaking in the Commons on Wednesday Mr Johnson insisted it was not yet time for an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic “when we are in the throes of fighting this wave of the new variant, when 37,000 people are struggling with Covid in our hospitals”.
Facing questions from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Mr Johnson said to “consecrate the energies and efforts of officialdom” to launch an official probe would take away from efforts of tackling the immediate threat, but he said there would be a time for lessons to be learned and previously committed to an independent review.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: “Boris Johnson keeps saying we need to learn the lessons from the pandemic, but in response to my question ‘when?’ he becomes evasive. The answer should be ‘now’.
“If the Prime Minister does not set up the inquiry now, over the next months and years we will see only more excuses, instead of the justice bereaved families deserve.
“Families who have lost loved ones deserve to know why we have one of the worst death rates in the world, why the Government has been poorly prepared and slow to act at every stage, and why they now have an empty chair at their table.
“The bereaved families of the Hillsborough disaster had to wait decades for justice. We cannot allow that to happen again to the bereaved families of Covid.”