Unions and MPs have joined urgent calls to bring forward their independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic to this year, accusing the government of ducking scrutiny by waiting until 2022.
Labour has said the inquiry must begin this summer, as Unison – the union that represents thousands of care workers – the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group, the Royal College of Nurses and a cross-party group of MPs investigating coronavirus united in saying it needs to begin as soon as possible.
The prime minister recently announced that an independent inquiry will take place in 2022, and today the health secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that date won’t change.
Cummings, who served as Boris Johnson’s most senior adviser until last December, said mistakes by government led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, and the inquiry should not be delayed. There were also dramatic claims that the health secretary lied about the level of protection for care home residents.
Families of those killed by Covid worry that waiting until next year to begin the inquiry will in the meantime shift the focus to political infighting rather than addressing what caused the UK's catastrophic death toll.
“The way things have been handled over the last few days has just turned things into a spectacle where it’s Johnson Vs Cummings, Cummings Vs Hancock," a spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved families told CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome.
"It’s such an inappropriate way to discuss the deaths of 150,000 people.
“People are going through the day-to-day trauma of losing loved ones, then having to hear this. By pushing it to 2022 there will be so much more of this, and more leaks, and more messages and Tweets and it’s all an undignified process. Delaying it just won’t be respectful to the families.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, which has members from the Conservatives, the SNP, Labour and Plaid Cymru, said today that both Johnson and Hancock were ducking scrutiny over the “errors that happened under their watch” and should hold the inquiry as soon as possible.
She said there is an “urgent need” for a public inquiry that is “genuinely independent” and that has full access to the relevant communications between ministers and civil servants.
"Ministers must not use the vaccine rollout as a smokescreen to avoid answering difficult questions about their handling of the pandemic.
"People deserve answers over what led to the catastrophic death toll and what is being done to ensure this does not happen again," she said.
UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said today: “Launching the public inquiry next spring is way too late. It must begin while experiences are still fresh in everyone's minds.
“The government owes answers to the workers, the public and the families of those who have lost their lives.
"The sooner a public inquiry can start gathering evidence, the better prepared the UK will be for the future. And that's in everyone's best interests."
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has today written to Hancock after they clashed in the Commons over Cummings’ allegations and what he perceived as vague answers in response.
He accused Hancock of refusing to answer questions on when testing got underway for hospital patients discharged into care homes.
In a letter to the health secretary he said: "It is extremely disrespectful to those who have died and their loved ones, for you not to have addressed such pressing questions in the Chamber when you first had the opportunity to do so.
“Out of respect for the families, I am therefore writing to urge you to admit to your mistakes and take action."
Hancock yesterday struck back at Dominic Cummings, describing the allegation that he lied several times during the coronavirus pandemic as false.
In his evidence, Cummings claimed that Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary, said he had "lost confidence" in Hancock's honesty after a meeting about the government's PPE supplies early in the pandemic in which the health secretary refused to accept responsibility for shortages in hospitals.
He singled out Hancock as a "senior" member of government who "performed far, far, disastrously below the standards that the country has a right to expect" during the pandemic response.
But Hancock told the House of Commons on Thursday that Cummings' allegations were "unsubstantiated".
"These allegations were put yesterday and that were repeated by the right honourable gentleman are serious allegations," he said in response to an Urgent Question by Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary.
"I welcome the opportunity to come to the House and put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true and that I've been straight with people in public and in private throughout".
He added: "Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January I've got up each morning and asked: 'what must I do to protect life?'
"That is the job of a health secretary in a pandemic".
Hancock said the government had taken an "approach of openness, transparency and explanation of both what we know and of what we don't know" and defended his visibility during the pandemic.
"Since last January, I have attended this House over sixty times," he said.
"With the Prime Minister we have together hosted 84 press conference, I've answered 2,667 contributions to this House, and answered questions from colleagues, the media and the public and I'll keep on with this spirit of openness and transparency throughout".
In his remarks to MPs, Hancock said "setting and meeting ambitious targets is how you get stuff done in government" in an apparent swipe at Cummings, who on Wednesday said Hancock's target early in the pandemic of testing 100,000 people a day was "criminal" and caused "serious harm".
Kate Proctor is the political editor of CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.