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UK: Inquiry to probe government's COVID pandemic management

Timothy Jones
June 13, 2023

A public inquiry into the UK government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic is underway. The country had one of the highest death tolls in Europe — but a study shows that many still think it was all a hoax.

 A volunteer repaints a red heart on the national COVID memorial wall.
The COVID Memorial Wall in London commemorates victims of the pandemicImage: Hesther Ng/Zuma/picture alliance

The UK government's management of the COVID-19 crisis is to come under scrutiny from Tuesday, with a likely focus to be on the country's high death toll in the pandemic compared to other European countries.

The public inquiry comes as former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the government when the pandemic broke out, is under investigation over whether he may have misled Parliament over alleged breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street.

Criticism by the bereaved

The six-section inquiry into pandemic management was established by Johnson in 2021 and is being headed by retired senior judge Heather Hallett.

The first section is to look at how prepared the UK was for such global health emergencies, with leading epidemiologists Jimmy Whitworth and Charlotte Hammer due to give evidence on Wednesday.

The fact that no relatives of COVID-19 victims are being included to give testimony in the first six-week phase of the inquiry has led to condemnation of the investigation as a "farce" by advocacy groups. 

The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group put forward 20 people to be considered as witnesses, but said none had been called to give evidence.

A spokeswoman for the inquiry said, however, that Hallett had not ruled out calling testimony from bereaved people in later phases.

The second phase will focus on government decision-making, with the later ones looking at the UK health service's performance, vaccines and therapies, and the impact on the care sector.

 The public hearings are scheduled to conclude by the summer of 2026.

Widespread COVID skepticism

As the inquiry begins, a survey carried out for broadcaster BBC revealed that almost a quarter of people living in the UK believe that COVID-19 was probably or definitely a hoax.

The April survey by London-based market research consultancy Savanta found that such conspiracy theories are widely fueled by social media and populist websites such as Breitbart.

Responding to the question of whether the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax, 9% said the statement was true and 14% said it was probably true.

Survey participants were also asked whether "the COVID-19 pandemic was part of a global effort to force everyone to be vaccinated whether they want to or not."

Here, even more were convinced that this was the case, with 12% saying the statement was true and 19% that it was probably true.

The survey also showed that a sizeable minority is also of the opinion that "the great replacement" — the idea that non-white immigrants are replacing white Americans and Europeans — is happening.

Other common conspiracy theories, such as that the cost-of-living crisis is a government plot and that people weren't really injured or killed in the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack, also had relatively large groups of believers.

This article uses material from the AFP news agency.

Edited by: Louis Oelofse