‘Hell on earth’: bereaved families on the battle for a Covid inquiry

By David Conn

For families whose loved ones died due to Covid-19, and who have been calling on the government to hold a public inquiry for over a year, Boris Johnson’s announcement of a statutory inquiry to start next year came as a bittersweet landmark. Jo Goodman, whose father, Stuart, 72, died last April, and who co-founded the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group almost exactly a year ago, said their campaign had been vindicated, but the battle with the government has caused them “trauma upon trauma” and left a legacy of mistrust.

While the announcement was “a huge relief”, the group warned that the inquiry was starting too late, and called on the government to involve bereaved families in key decision-making, including the choice of chair and terms of reference for the inquiry. Elkan Abrahamson, a Liverpool-based solicitor who has worked for free on the group’s behalf, first wrote to Johnson on 11 June last year, calling for a rapid public inquiry, naming 56 bereaved families. The group emphasised the need for an immediate, “rapid review” inquiry, so that lessons could be learned to avoid a second wave of the virus. Goodman said it was devastating for families to see thousands more people die in the winter, and the group still believes the inquiry should be set up immediately.

“In that first letter, we raised so many issues, including the discharge of people from hospital into care homes, the adequacy of test and trace, the timing of lockdown, that were not resolved by the second wave,” Goodman said. “Bereaved families had experienced other issues, such as inadequate advice from the NHS 111 service, and people being infected in hospitals. But the government refused to hold a rapid inquiry, and Boris Johnson refused to meet us, and it was terrible to see so many more people die and families suffer.”

Writing on National Covid Memorial wall
A member of the public writes on the National Covid Memorial wall Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Until Wednesday, the government had consistently refused to commit to a formal, statutory inquiry, while saying there would be some form of inquiry but never specifying when it would happen. The government did not even respond to the families’ initial letter for five weeks, despite a reminder. When it did come, the reply was not from Johnson or the health secretary, Matt Hancock, but from a senior civil servant, Lee McDonough, at the Department of Health and Social Care. Last July he set out what has effectively remained the government’s position until this week: “At some point in the future there will be an opportunity … to look back, to reflect and to learn lessons. However, at the moment, the important thing is to focus on responding to the current pandemic.”

The families had asked for a meeting with Johnson and Hancock, but McDonough said they were too busy dealing with the pandemic to do so. Abrahamson and the group’s barrister, Pete Weatherby QC, who is also working pro bono, warned the government that it may seek a judicial review of its refusal to hold an inquiry, arguing that it has a legal duty to do so under article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights. That requires an “effective investigation” when people have died in circumstances where the state had a duty to safeguard their lives.

Ranjith Chandrapala
Leshie Chandrapala, whose father (pictured), Ranjith Chandrapala, 64, died from Covid last May, said the campaign for an inquiry alongside grieving was creating a ‘ticking timebomb’ Photograph: Leshie Chandrapala/Reuters

The government responded by rejecting the argument that article 2 had been breached or that an immediate statutory inquiry was necessary to learn lessons, and refused to agree to waive its own legal costs if the group did apply for a judicial review. That forced the families to seek crowdfunding and apply for charitable grants, and they raised £50,000 to support the need to pay the government’s legal costs if they did go ahead with a legal challenge. The recent story, denied by Downing Street, that Johnson said in November that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than order another lockdown, caused the families further anguish.

“For us it has been trauma upon trauma,” Goodman said. “Our loved ones died from this virus in circumstances that we believe were avoidable. Then we have had to put our grief on hold and fight for the truth, and answers. It has been a further trauma to be fobbed off and ignored, and have our sensible request for an inquiry refused, until now.

“The group has grown to 4,000 members and it is incredible to finally see this announcement; my mum and I had a little cry when we heard the news. But because of how we’ve been treated, we still feel mistrustful, and insistent that we need to be fully involved, including in the choice of chairperson and the areas the inquiry will address.”

Leshie Chandrapala, whose father, Ranjith, a London bus driver, died from the virus last May, said she had suffered “absolute hell on earth” due to losing him, then having to fight for details about his working conditions on the buses during the pandemic, and for his death to be accepted as a workplace fatality. She said it was vital for families to be “involved and consulted” in the inquiry from the start.

“I don’t know what ‘to cope’ means any more,” Chandrapala said. “I am trying my best because I was brought up by my dad to be responsible, honest and not let people down. However, doing so alongside grieving in a pandemic, and campaigning, is creating a great big mental health ticking timebomb which will no doubt explode by the time this is all over.”