The hon. Member makes a good point that a sensible debate can and should take place on how the inquiry can commence immediately and then be conducted in stages. Surely the first priority is learning lessons from what has gone wrong in order to avoid that in the future and to avoid us seeing yet more people die needlessly. That approach is sensible. Exactly how the public inquiry is conducted should form part of the debate.
Over the past year, the country has experienced tragedy and human suffering on a scale not seen since the second world war. No one could have imagined that 130,000 lives would be lost to this terrible virus, which has turned whole lives upside down as family and friends mourn the loss of loved ones. That is why this debate matters and why a public inquiry is so important. All Members across the House will have heard heartbreaking stories from their constituents over the past 18 months, like from Jane, who quite simply says, “I want to know why my dad and sister died. What were the mistakes that were made?”. She always asks, “How can we ensure that no one else in future suffers the loss that I have suffered?”. It is therefore vital that the covid-19 public inquiry has the confidence of the bereaved families, such as Jane.
The Committee’s report is a vital contribution to ensuring that the Government get the process right. In the time since the report was published, the Government have announced that a public inquiry will take place. However, that should not be a reason to be relaxed, because I am afraid that the Government’s approach to the inquiry thus far falls far short of what the Committee recommends should be expected. As a consequence, the Government risk the trust and confidence of the bereaved families if they do not place them at the heart of the process going forward, about which I will say more later.
I wish to focus on three key areas highlighted by the report in which, frankly, the Government’s approach is lacking: first, the timetable for the inquiry to begin; secondly, the selection of the chair and the terms of reference; and thirdly, the implementation of the inquiry’s recommendations. On the first point, the Government have set a timetable for the inquiry to commence in the spring of next year. That is simply too far away. Everyone understands the challenges that the country had to face during the first wave, but the Government’s failure to learn the lessons of the first wave has already left us with an even more tragic second wave during last winter, with too many lost lives and our stretched economy under even more strain. Then, this spring, we have had the debacle of the borders policy, with the delta variant sweeping through the country and a third wave developing and cases now rocketing.
It is therefore critical that we learn the lessons that need to be learned now. The Government cannot kick the can down the road to next spring. I stress again that we need to go forward to the next stages. We know that the Government have conducted internal lessons learned reviews. What are these reviews? Why will they not publish them? What is there to hide? The Committee recommends that such in-house assessments by Government Departments should be handed to the relevant Select Committees and the summaries also made public, and that has got to be right. Surely, on a matter so important to the future preparedness of the nation to rise to the challenge of coronavirus, the Government should publish these reviews now.
I now turn to the selection of the chair and the terms of reference of the inquiry. Paragraph 24 of the Committee’s report is clear that the setting up of the inquiry’s secretariat and administrative functions must begin “immediately” as
“delaying the set-up will inevitably delay the inquiry’s ability to start work in earnest”.
The Committee is absolutely right. I completely agree, and we have been clear, that the work must commence now and that it must be transparent and in consultation with the bereaved families. Just how long do the Government expect the families to wait for this process to begin? Other family members have said to me, “Jack, justice delayed is justice denied. We, the bereaved families, deserve better than this.”
I understand why the Government do not wish to redirect officials and frontline staff on a wholesale basis from the work of combating the pandemic, but surely the consultation with the bereaved families and other stakeholders on the selection of the inquiry chair, its secretariat and terms of reference can and should begin now. The Committee highlights that consultation with the bereaved families could make a “significant contribution” to the inquiry. I absolutely agree. The House will therefore want to hear from the Minister how much progress has been made on consulting the bereaved families on these matters.
Yesterday, dozens of members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign came to London. It was heartbreaking to walk down row upon row of photographs of loved ones who had died. They wanted to bring home the impact on them, the relatives and the bereaved, but they also wanted to know, in telling their often heartbreaking stories, why no one was talking to them. One mother whose grandmother had died said, “Why is it that they are not talking to us?” She wanted to know why the Government had not contacted relatives’ organisations, particularly the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign, to start to engage in a dialogue going forward at the next stages. It is inexplicable and absolutely unacceptable.
I share the concern of the relatives over the foot-dragging by Ministers who have avoided repeated requests to meet the bereaved families and hear their concerns. I can give an example that I have been engaged in personally. Before resigning, the former Health Secretary was good enough to agree at the Dispatch Box last December to meet families from Birmingham, yet not once did he or his office contact them or me to make the arrangements, despite numerous phone calls and emails from us. Not once. He had lifted the expectations of dozens of relatives that they would at last be involved in dialogue and consultation, but the door was shut in their face. I hope the Minister can now give a clear assurance that the bereaved families will be consulted on the chair and the terms of reference.
Finally, there is the question of implementing the inquiry’s recommendations. The hon. Member for Thurrock, in a powerful contribution, mentioned Bishop Jones, the Hillsborough inquiry and the mistakes that were made before fully exposing the truth of what happened. That point was well made. We cannot let this be a public inquiry whose recommendations are quietly shelved or swept under the carpet. The national trauma that the country has endured over the past year demands more. Despite the crisis last year, this country has achieved great things, but a decade of austerity weakened the foundations of our country and undermined our national defences against the pandemic.
We cannot simply go back to business as usual when the pandemic subsides. Lessons must be learned. The Government should therefore make a clear commitment both to set up the inquiry and to engage with it. It is only by beginning the inquiry that we can learn those serious lessons to avoid future tragedies. Without that, we cannot build a better future for our country, built on the strength and resilience we tapped into to get through the hardest of times. Only then can we be ready for whatever challenges come next.
In closing, I refer once again to those who should be at the heart of the covid-19 public inquiry: those who died and their families. On both sides of the House, right hon. and hon. Members have been meeting bereaved families over the past year. Those meetings have been some of the most difficult and emotional I have ever been involved in. The families simply want to know why their loved ones died, when many of them should not have. They want the right lessons to be learned so that no one else has to suffer the loss they have suffered. That is a noble aim, and it is one that the Government must rise to in setting up the public inquiry. We owe nothing less to the bereaved families.