After a solemn opening statement by inquiry chair Baroness Hallett, a harrowing video was played of families, including from London, who so tragically lost loved ones during those bleak years.
“It happened all very quickly, within seven days my mum was gone, just like that,” recalled Lucy, from the capital.
Hazel, also from London, explained how her daughter alerted her that her father was becoming unwell, struggling to breathe, before being told he had to go to hospital. Fighting back tears, she added: “They tested him and they said it’s definitely Covid.”
Inquiry officials had warned that the film of “some of those who suffered most during the pandemic” may be “difficult to watch”. But even this could not prepare people, tuning into the inquiry, for the raw pain still being felt by so many across the country. Baroness Hallett stressed that grieving families of victims of Covid-19 “will always be at the heart” of Britain’s public inquiry into the pandemic.
Opening the first six weeks of evidence sessions, she said: “I’ve promised many times those who suffered hardship and loss are, and will always be, at the heart of the inquiry. I’ve done my very best within the constraints upon me of time, resources and terms of reference to fulfil that promise.
“I know there are those who feel the inquiry has not sufficiently recognised their loss, or listened to them in a way they feel is appropriate. I hope they will better understand as the inquiry progressed the very difficult balance I have had to strike.
“I hope they will understand when they see the results of the work we are doing that I am listening to them. Their loss will be recognised.”
But some bereaved families, holding pictures of their loved ones, lined up outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry building as the far-reaching probe into the handling of the pandemic officially began its public hearings.
Members of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice (CBFFJ) campaign group went to the west London venue to express frustration at feeling “excluded from sharing key evidence” with the inquiry. The group has previously stated that it feels marginalised, criticising the decision to call “only one” of its members as a witness in the first module, having “rejected all of the 20 members” it had suggested could give evidence. For many people in Britain life may have returned to normal.
But the pandemic’s long shadow still hangs over so many whose relatives died, whose education was disrupted, whose parents and grandparents suffered so terribly in care homes, whose debt-laden businesses went under or are struggling to keep going.
The inquiry is also shadowed by the political controversy over the Government’s response to the pandemic and more recently its clash with Baroness Hallett over submitting all the unredacted documents that she is demanding. The first section of the inquiry, set to cost around £100 million, was expected to last around six weeks, during which the focus will be on whether the pandemic was properly planned for and “whether the UK was adequately ready for that eventuality”.
Ministers have been accused of planning for a flu pandemic, instead of a virus such as Covid, and of being slow to react as the horrors of the crisis were so clearly unfolding in Italy, which was hit before the UK. Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown in March 2020 which was followed by a wave of other restrictions including two more country-wide lockdowns before being eased in July 2021.
Ahead of the hearings, Leshie Chandrapala, whose father Ranjith — a bus driver from north-west London — died with Covid in May 2020 described today as “monumental”.
She believes her father could still be alive had he and other bus drivers been better protected while working at the pandemic’s height. “We want to learn the lessons so that in future pandemics we’re not going to have a death toll near as much as a quarter of a million people,” she told Sky News.
More than 220,000 people in the UK died with Covid on their death certificates. Many of them died from other causes but this does not disguise the appalling toll from the virus.
Recent weeks have seen a row between the inquiry chairwoman and the Government over access to material. The Cabinet Office is seeking a judicial review of her demand that unredacted documents are handed over even if they are deemed “unambiguously irrelevant” to the inquiry by government-appointed lawyers. She says these decisions on relevance are for her team to make.
Mr Johnson has urged the Government to give his WhatsApp messages and diary to the inquiry.
The inquiry is split into six modules, with public hearings scheduled to conclude by summer 2026, and interim reports published before then.