Our lives have been turned upside down by the lockdown. Millions of frontline workers have put themselves at risk to keep us safe. Far too many families have lost loved ones. It has become increasingly clear that the Government was poorly prepared for a pandemic and slow to act when it hit.
The lack of personal protective gear for those on the frontlines; the failure to genuinely protect care home staff and residents; the woeful inadequacy of the test and trace system; the confusion created by muddled ministerial announcements; the prioritisation of party political interests over public health.
All of these have contributed to the tragic fact that the UK suffered one of the worst death rates in the world and we need an independent inquiry, with the strongest possible powers, so we can learn the lessons to prevent further unnecessary deaths in the future.
That’s a point the Liberal Democrats have made repeatedly to the Government over the last three months, since I became the first party leader to call for an inquiry at Prime Minister’s Questions back in April.
Two weeks ago, I finally got the Prime Minister to commit that he will establish an independent inquiry. But, sadly, we have seen no action from the Prime Minister to deliver on his commitment since then.
This inquiry cannot wait. The coronavirus threat remains very real, with the danger of further waves – as we are now seeing in several other countries. Were a second wave to happen here during the winter, it could be even more deadly and damaging than the first.
When I speak to the relatives of those who have lost their lives to the virus, they are adamant that the Government must get the inquiry up and running without further delay. They want to save other families from going through the anguish they have endured.
So I have worked with the group Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, and with legal experts including Martin Forde QC and his colleague Judith Rogerson (the excellent Liberal Democrat candidate for Harrogate and Knaresborough in last year’s general election), to draw up proposed terms of reference for the inquiry – so that the Prime Minister can just get on with it.
It is essential that the inquiry includes the effective participation of the bereaved, which is why our terms of reference make clear that they must be consulted from the outset.
It must also look into the disproportionate effect that the pandemic has had on certain vulnerable groups in our society, including BAME communities, people in mental health and other forms of detention, and those with dementia, learning disabilities and autism.
In order to combat the immediate ongoing threat of coronavirus, we are recommending that the inquiry should produce an urgent interim report – by mid-October at the latest – focusing on the lessons we can learn now to help prevent and prepare for further national and local outbreaks. The aim must then be to publish a full report by the end of next year.
Then there is the question of who should chair the inquiry. It must clearly be someone who has the necessary skills to conduct a detailed and thorough examination of the Government’s handling of the pandemic, someone whose impartiality is above reproach, and someone who will have the trust and confidence of all communities – including and especially bereaved families.
I am therefore recommending to the Prime Minister that he selects Martin Forde QC for the job. Martin is a very highly respected barrister whose legal experience and expertise make him perfectly suited to chair this inquiry.
And through his roles as independent adviser on the design of the Government’s Windrush Compensation Scheme and as chair of the independent inquiry into Labour’s report on the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, he has shown that he can command trust and respect from across the political spectrum.
I am immensely grateful to Martin for his help developing our proposed terms of reference for the inquiry, and I hope the Prime Minister will seriously consider him for the job.
Boris Johnson’s response to coronavirus has been characterised by delay. Now he must finally show some urgency, listen to bereaved families and establish this inquiry to prevent more unnecessary tragedy.
Sir Ed Davey MP is the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats.
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