Bereaved relatives call for immediate inquiry into Covid-19 crisis

Lawyers for 450 people call on Boris Johnson to start public inquiry to help prevent deaths

Elsie Sazuze, second left, who died from Covid-19, with her family.

Care home nurse Elsie Sazuze, second left, who died from Covid-19, with her family.

Lawyers representing 450 bereaved people whose relatives have died due to Covid-19 have called on Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock to hold an immediate public inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis to help prevent many more deaths.

The formal petition to the government from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group argues there is “a compelling need to set up the inquiry immediately”, to consider the best measures necessary to “minimise the ongoing effects of the virus”. The inquiry should ultimately examine the key government decisions and state of preparedness, which the families argue contributed to their relatives dying, the petition states.

It adds: “There is a widely held public belief that the government is making wrong decisions in this crisis and that the government errors have cost and will continue to cost lives.”

Matt Fowler, a co-founder and spokesperson for the families’ group, whose 56-year-old father, Ian, a retired design engineer for Jaguar Land Rover, died on 13 April, said: “It has become tragically clear that fatal mistakes have been made by the government in its handling of the pandemic. As the staggering statistics continue to roll in, so too do the stories of personal tragedy, heartache and loss. The crucial fact is that every one of those statistics was a living breathing person, taken before their time and leaving an empty void in the lives of their families and friends.

“For many, the wounds caused by their loss will never truly heal. For those left behind there is pain, confusion and a sense of having been failed by the system that should be protecting them.”

Members of the group include Ken Sazuze, the husband of Elsie Sazuze, a nurse at a care home who died aged 44; the daughter of a London bus driver, Ranjith Chandrapala, who died aged 64; Fiona Kirton, whose father, Bernard, was transferred from a hospital to a care home without first being tested for the virus; and Jo Goodman, whose father Stuart believed he became infected after having to attend a hospital in person for an appointment on 18 March.

London bus driver Ranjith Chandrapala, 64, who died from Covid-19 at Ealing Hospital on 3 May.

London bus driver Ranjith Chandrapala, 64, who died from Covid-19 at Ealing hospital on 3 May.

Goodman said the families believed the need for a public inquiry had become even more compelling in light of comments this week from Prof Neil Ferguson, who was a senior member of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) until he stepped down on 5 May. He told MPs on the Commons science committee that introducing lockdown measures just a week earlier would have reduced the number of people dying by at least half . The latest information from the Office for National Statistics this week showed there have been more than 63,000 excess deaths due to the virus.

“My family and other members of the group heard that and obviously we now feel, as we have done throughout, that our loved ones did not need to die, and may have been saved if the government had responded more promptly to the spread of the virus, as other countries were doing,” Goodman said.

The families’ petition to Johnson and Hancock states: “There is criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis from all quarters.” It says when a full public inquiry is held, it must consider:

  • The timing of the UK lockdown on 23 March, which was later than almost all European countries.

  • The state of the government stockpile of personal protective equipment and testing capacity.

  • The response to warnings in the 2017 Exercise Cygnus report that the UK was not adequately prepared for a pandemic

  • The disproportionately high number of black and minority ethnic people who have died from Covid-19.

  • The transfer of patients from hospitals to care homes and several other key issues that have been subject to intense criticism.

The group’s lawyers, led by Pete Weatherby QC and Elkan Abrahamson of Broudie Jackson Canter, who represented 22 bereaved families at the 2014-16 new inquests into the Hillsborough disaster, argue that the government is under a legal duty to hold a public inquiry. The chief coroner, Mark Lucraft QC, issued guidance in March that in most cases deaths from Covid-19 should not be investigated at inquests, and that where there were inquests they were not “the right forum” for addressing concerns about government policy.

Johnson and other ministers have so far rejected calls for an immediate public inquiry, including from 27 medical and public health experts who wrote to the Guardian on 5 June. Johnson has acknowledged there will be a time to learn lessons, but said he was “very proud” of his government’s response.