Boris Johnson has appointed crossbench peer Baroness Heather Hallett to chair the long-awaited public inquiry into the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The probe – to be launched in spring 2022 – will be given powers to summon witnesses, including ministers and advisers, under oath and compel the release of documents related to the crisis.
Baroness Hallett – a former High Court judge – has previously acted in the inquests of the 52 victims of the 7/7 bombings and is currently acting as coroner in the inquest into the death of Dawn Sturgess, who died in July 2018 following exposure to the nerve agent novichok.
While welcoming her appointment, the Covid-19 bereaved families for justice, which has been pushing for an independent inquiry, said: “Whilst this news is very welcome, unfortunately it comes too late.
“We’ve been calling for an inquiry since the end of the first wave, and we will never know how many lives could have been saved had the government had a rapid review phase in Summer 2020. With the omicron variant upon us, the inquiry really cannot come soon enough.”
The group also urged the prime minister to consult them on the terms of reference, adding: “The inquiry could and should be an historic and positive process from which the terrible suffering and loss of the past 18 months are learned from, to ensure these tragedies are not repeated in the future. Today is finally a positive step in making that happen.
“This is a one off, historic opportunity to learn lessons to protect lives across the country. We cannot afford to get it wrong and we look forward to working closely with Baroness Hallett to make it a success.”
Mr Johnson, who resisted previous calls for a rapid probe into his administration’s handling of the Covid pandemic, has told MPs the public inquiry, which will place the “state’s actions under the microscope”, will be launched in spring 2022.
In a statement on Wednesday, he added: “In the new year I shall be seeking views from those who have lost loved ones and all other affected groups about the inquiry’s terms of reference.
“I want to assure the British public that, once the terms of reference are finalised, I shall do my utmost to ensure the Inquiry answers as many questions as possible about the UK’s response to the pandemic so that we can all learn lessons for the future.”
Baroness Hallett said: “I am honoured to be appointed to chair the Covid-19 inquiry. The pandemic has affected us all, some much worse than others. I am acutely conscious of the suffering it has caused to so many.
“In the new year I shall be seeking views from those who have lost loved ones and all other affected groups about the inquiry’s terms of reference.
“I want to assure the British public that, once the terms of reference are finalised, I shall do my utmost to ensure the inquiry answers as many questions as possible about the UK’s response to the pandemic so that we can all learn lessons for the future.”