LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday announced an investigation next year into the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic that will likely focus on why the UK has suffered the highest death toll in Europe and was so slow initially to enforce a lockdown.
Johnson and his ministers admitted there were lessons to be learned from the worst public health crisis in decades, but point to the rapid roll-out of vaccines in the UK as evidence that there are also successes.
“This process will put state actions under the microscope,” Johnson told parliament.
The public inquiry and its final report could define Johnson’s political legacy and, depending on when the results are released, influence voters ahead of a national election currently scheduled sometime before 2024.
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He will delve into decision-making in the heart of Britain’s statehood as ministers mulled over imposing unprecedented peacetime restrictions and rushed to buy billions of pounds of drugs and equipment.
The UK’s official death toll is 127,629 – the worst number in Europe and the fifth worst in the world, after the US, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Johnson has been accused by opponents of reacting too slowly to the crisis, especially at the start, of not providing sufficient protective equipment and of spoiling the testing system.
So far, 35.6 million people in the UK, more than two-thirds of the adult population, have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
The investigation will be supported by legislation giving it sweeping powers, Johnson said.
Johnson had previously agreed to hold an inquiry, but had resisted pressure from opposition parties to launch it while the government was still dealing with the crisis, saying it was more important to focus on this and the subsequent stimulus package .
But speaking in parliament, he said the investigation would begin in the spring of 2022, after some of the worst pressures abated to avoid diverting resources from the crisis response. He warned of the risk of a resurgence of the virus.
Opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer asked why the investigation could not start sooner and said it was vital that the exercise enjoys the support of all political parties in parliament and generates public support. confidence of the families of the victims of the pandemic.
Johnson did not define the mandate of the investigation or who would lead it, saying there was a need to consult with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on these issues.