The Government will set up an independent public inquiry with statutory powers into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson has said.
The Prime Minister told MPs the inquiry, which was welcomed by some bereaved families, will begin in spring 2022 and will place “the state’s actions under the microscope”.
The inquiry will be able to take oral evidence under oath, he said, adding that the state has an obligation “to learn every lesson for the future”.
It comes as a damning report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO), said a quicker international response could have stopped the 2019 Covid-19 outbreak in China becoming a global catastrophe.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Johnson outlined the impact of the pandemic so far and added: “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.
“So, 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.”
He said devolved administrations would be consulted before the final scope of the inquiry was published.
Mr Johnson said the inquiry must be able 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.
“Free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players and analyse and learn from the breadth of our response,” he said.
“That’s the right way, I think, to get the answers that the people of this country deserve and to ensure that our United Kingdom is better prepared for any future pandemic.”
He added: “I feel personally very, very strongly that this country has been through a trauma like no other, it is absolutely vital for the sake of the bereaved, for the sake of our country, that we should understand exactly what happened, we should learn the lessons, we have been learning lessons throughout, but we need to have a very clear understanding of what took place over the last 14 months.
“I think we owe it to the country to have as much transparency as we possibly can and we owe it to the country to produce answers in a reasonable timescale.”
Downing Street indicated Mr Johnson would be willing to give evidence under oath if asked, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman saying he “will conform to what is required for the inquiry”.
Number 10 also defended the timescale of the inquiry, stating that “these sorts of inquiries do require a great deal of Government time with officials who are currently working on our Covid response”.
But the spokesman confirmed an “informal” lessons learned review of the coronavirus response has been carried out but declined to say whether it would be published.
The all party parliamentary group (APPG) on coronavirus has urged the Government to release the findings.
Clive Lewis, vice-chair of the group, said: “The Government must come clean and publish this review immediately to avoid accusations of a cover-up.
“Every individual and community in the country has been touched by this pandemic, so the British public has a right to know what mistakes have been made and the lessons learned so far.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and nowhere is that more true than the Government’s handling of this pandemic.”
Jo Goodman, co-founder of the Bereaved Families for Justice group, who lost her father Stuart to Covid, said: “It’s a huge relief to hear the Prime Minister commit to the statutory inquiry that bereaved families have been calling for – one with the power to compel witnesses. But there are still further steps needed to ensure we all get the answers we need as a country.
“First and foremost any inquiry must involve bereaved families from the start, helping to choose the chair as well as determining the terms of reference.
“Whilst we welcome the Prime Minister’s assurances that bereaved families will be consulted on this, the devil will be in the detail.
“Secondly, spring 2022 is simply too late to begin. It sounds like common sense when the Prime Minister says that an inquiry can wait until the pandemic is over, but lives are at stake with health experts and scientists warning of a third wave later this year.
“A rapid review in summer 2020 could have saved our loved ones who died in the second wave in winter.
“We are ready to meet the Government to start this dialogue right away and preparations must begin immediately.”
The Royal College of Nursing’s acting general secretary, Pat Cullen, said “a year is too long to wait”.
She added: “In the inquiry, we expect the nursing voice, in all four countries, integral to the response to the pandemic, to be represented at all levels.”
A commission on Covid commemoration is also to be established to help remember those who lost their lives during the pandemic.
Mr Johnson told MPs: “There is a solemn duty on our whole United Kingdom to come together and to cherish the memories of those who have been lost.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer questioned why the inquiry could not start before spring 2022, suggesting it could start later this year.
The WHO-commissioned study from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response says the current global system was not adequate to protect people from Covid-19.
It said it took too long from a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown origin in mid-late December 2019 to a public health emergency of international concern being declared.
The panel also said February 2020 was a lost month when many more countries could have taken steps to contain the spread of Covid and “forestall the global health, social, and economic catastrophe” that continues.
Panel co-chairwoman and former president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, said: “Our message is simple and clear: the current system failed to protect us from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“And if we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time.”