Prime minister Boris Johnson has confirmed an independent inquiry into the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be established, but its work will not commence until next year.
No.10 confirmed separately that at least one departmental lessons-learned review had already concluded, but insisted its findings were not intended for publication.
Johnson first pledged a public inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic in July last year. Yesterday he told MPs the official probe will be set up “on a statutory basis with all powers under the Inquiries Act of 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant material”.
However the PM also said in parliament that he probe would not begin until spring 2022 to avoid placing “a significant burden” on the NHS until after next winter.
"We must not inadvertently divert or distract the very people on whom we all depend in the heart of our struggle against this disease," he said.
Johnson said: “Amid such tragedy the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future – which is why I've always said when the time is right, there should be a full and independent inquiry.
“I can confirm today that the government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 – including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath.”
Johnson added that whoever chaired the inquiry had to be “free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players”, as the way to “get the answers that the people of this country deserve”.
Deputy leader of the Labour Party Angela Rayner accused the PM of trying to “kick the can down the road” and said the inquiry should begin as soon as possible and not next year.
“The families of all those who have tragically lost their lives during this pandemic deserve answers, and we must learn the lessons,” she said. “It is particularly urgent that the inquiry begins now given the prime minister is himself predicting a further wave of infections later this year, with more lives potentially at stake.”
Last year former cabinet secretary Lord Mark Sedwill gave MPs a detailed view on what the coronavirus public inquiry should examine – with key points being the timing of lockdowns, the general health of the population, and initial track-and-trace capability. He said the inquiry should also look at the different approaches to dealing with the pandemic taken by the devolved nations.
He questioned whether it would be possible to properly assess what had worked for the government and what had not “until we’re through it”. But Sedwill said the process of learning lessons did not need to be delayed.
Internal inquiry findings ‘won’t be published’
Also yesterday it emerged that at least one departmental lessons-learned exercise has already completed, but the prime minister’s official spokesman said the exercise’s findings would not be published.
The Huffington Post reported that the Department of Health and Social Care had now completed a best-practice-focused internal assessment of “what went wrong”.
It quoted the official spokesman describing the review as “an informal, not public-facing work”.
“As you’d expect it’s standard practice for departments to look into ways that they can continually improve,” the spokesman said.
“That’s been done previously, it’s been done throughout this pandemic. The government has learned from, as we have gone along, dealing with this novel Coronavirus… on treatments, on diagnostics.”
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.