It’s been just over two years since Dad died. That’s two years of unprocessed grief shelved in the campaign for justice, but finally the public inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic has been launched. For the bereaved, the news brings an enormous sense of relief. The process of learning lessons from the UK’s handling of the pandemic has at last been moved out of Boris Johnson’s reach.
We’ve weathered two years of distractions: Partygate, the cost of living crisis, no-confidence votes. Families have had to fight every step of the way to make it to this point. We’ve threatened two separate judicial reviews, and even been prepared to put ourselves at financial risk to secure this opportunity for justice. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have done everything they can to kick their accountability into the long grass. But now those distractions are irrelevant – with the terms of reference fixed (despite sitting unsigned and gathering dust on Johnson’s desk for six weeks) and the date set, this government can no longer influence the inquiry.
My dad died in May 2020, aged 55. He was a key worker at the Heinz factory in Wigan and hadn’t had a day off sick in 20 years. During lockdown, he carried a letter from his employer everywhere with him detailing his key-worker status. He was so proud to be needed, he had never felt important before. When he died, he had been in hospital, lying alone in a coma, for 42 days. We were ushered in to say our final goodbyes before hospital staff turned down the flow of oxygen and he died in front of us. Later, they wrapped him in a hazardous waste bag. He was placed in his coffin wearing it.
Do I blame Boris Johnson for his untimely death? That mask-wearing wasn’t mandatory – or even particularly encouraged – on the public transport my dad took to work? For having to say my final goodbye to him on the phone, while he listened, confused from the lack of oxygen? For the never-ending horrors and indignities bereaved families such as mine have faced? Of course I want accountability. But blaming Johnson won’t bring my dad back. What I really want are lessons to be learned before the next pandemic – because it will come.
If this inquiry makes us better prepared for the next time round – if it prevents Covid patients from being illegally discharged to care homes, or hospital-acquired Covid from becoming rife, as it still is now – then it will be worth the wait. Our motto has always been to learn lessons and save lives. Right from the very beginning, the UK ignored warnings coming out of China. And then Italy, then France. There was this sense that we are “Great Britain”, we’ll never be affected by some virus like these other countries. While key government figures enjoyed their skiing holidays, the pandemic was gaining speed and being imported. That can’t happen again. I want to see inquiry chair Baroness Hallett issue concrete recommendations via interim reports straight away. Families won’t wait 10 years for the final report to secure justice. If we can save more lives today, then we need to implement any learnings as soon as they become available.
I haven’t been able to come to terms with my dad’s death. I’m bracing myself to learn that there were huge mistakes made at the start of the pandemic that cost him his life. If I grieve my dad now, I’ll have to reopen those wounds that will have been very carefully sewn shut. But Heather Hallett’s commitment to justice has given me hope that a day will come when I’ll be able to process what happened. She has promised the families that any attempts to subvert the inquiry’s questioning will not be tolerated and I believe we can trust her.
Under Johnson’s premiership, I can’t believe that her findings will ever be implemented fairly. How could they be? Surely anything that paints his associates in a bad light will be overlooked if it threatens his desperate grip on power. But that doesn’t matter now. The tide is shifting. Johnson won’t be able to survive many more revelations. By the time the reports are released, I’m confident we’ll have a new government – and maybe with it some closure for the bereaved.
Hannah Brady is spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Campaign
As told to Lucy Pasha-Robinson
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