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MPs call for UK coronavirus inquiry to be fully independent

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Meanwhile, Independent Sage urges immediate action to tackle coronavirus variant of concern

The planned UK inquiry into the coronavirus crisis must be fully independent and led by scientific and medical experts, an influential group of MPs has said.

In a letter dated 14 May and published on 17 May, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus welcomed prime minister Boris Johnson’s pledge to hold a public inquiry into the government’s response to the virus starting in spring 2022.

But they said that it was important for the inquiry to be “fully independent, command the confidence of the public and the support of parliament and all four nations of the UK”.

“We therefore urge you to ensure the chair and panel of the inquiry are decided on a cross-party basis and in consultation with the devolved administrations, rather than being hand-picked by the UK government,” said the cross-party group of MPs, which includes former Conservative health minister Dan Poulter.

They argue that a formal committee with representatives from each of the Westminster political parties and four nations of the UK should be formed “to provide a forum for discussion on the inquiry and avoid any accusations of political bias”.

The prime minister told the House of Commons on 12 May that the inquiry would begin in spring 2022 to “look at the events of the last year in the cold light of day and identify the key issues that will make a difference for the future”. Johnson confirmed that the inquiry would be established on a statutory basis—with full formal powers, though no decisions on a chair and terms of reference have yet been made.

In their letter, the MPs added that the inquiry should be led by those with the “scientific and medical expertise needed to examine all the evidence available and make sure the right lessons are learned”.

“It must leave no stone unturned in its efforts to uncover what went wrong and how to ensure the country is better prepared for future pandemics,” they said.

Timing and government response

In addition, the MPs took issue with the timing of the inquiry, which they said would mean that “vital lessons go unlearned ahead of a potential third wave”.

“Clearly time is needed to allow for wide consultation on the terms of reference, but after that, the inquiry must start as soon as possible,” they said. “There is no time to waste in ensuring that the NHS and social care system are better equipped for any deadly variants or future waves.”

A government spokesperson said: “We have always been clear that there would be opportunities to look back and reflect on lessons learnt from our response to this unprecedented global challenge.

“As the prime minister said last week, we have committed to holding a full public inquiry as soon as is reasonably possible.

“But our immediate focus is on the priorities of the people—ensuring our roadmap [to lifting Covid restrictions] is irreversible and building back better as we recover from this pandemic.”

Action plan for new variants

The letter comes as the self-appointed expert group, Independent Sage, called for urgent action from government in light of evidence suggesting that the new Indian variant of coronavirus is up to 60 per cent more transmissible than the more prevalent so-called Kent variant.

The group proposed a six-point plan of action to deal with the new variant and to prepare for future variants, including global and local vaccination supported by a waiver of patent rights; improved border controls and supported quarantine; improved local systems of outbreak control; surge vaccination in areas experiencing outbreaks of the new variant; limits on indoor mixing; and continued vigilance.

“It is incumbent that we act now rather than wait and see if things get worse,” the group said on 14 May. “The lessons from 2020 have shown that delaying action could increase hospitalisations, overwhelm the NHS, and may also cost lives.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The government already has a plan of action and robust measures in place to tackle the threat of variants, which has been informed by a range of advice from our world-class scientific and medical experts.

“This includes strict border controls and deploying surge testing, enhanced contact tracing and sequencing in over 15 areas to suppress transmission, with more than 60,000 additional PCR test kits distributed so far.

“Over 20 million people across the UK are already fully vaccinated against this virus. We recently announced that the most vulnerable people will be offered their second Covid-19 vaccine dose earlier to maximise protection against variants.”