Boris Johnson has doubled down on his refusal to meet a group of families bereaved by coronavirus, claiming the group are in litigation against the government to bring about an independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, which represents 1,600 families, is campaigning for a rapid public inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic and is sending pre-action letters to No 10 to try to force one. The group denies this amounts to legal action and says it has sought a meeting to prevent such action.
Deborah Doyle, a member of the group, said she felt hurt and angered by the prime minister’s response. “If he’d meet with us, it doesn’t need to go to court. We wrote to Boris back in early June asking him to meet us with our concerns and we’re five letters later and now he’s responded.”
She added that she was upset by the words used by Johnson. “We’ve had a lot of trolling in the past … [they say] ‘you’re after compensation, you want to take the government to court, it’s going to cost a fortune’ … We don’t want to go through that process. We’re bereaved families. The last thing I want to be doing is standing talking to the media because I want to grieve for my mum and I don’t want other people to have to go through this at a later date.”
Doyle’s mother, Sylvia Griffiths, died at a care home on 16 April. She believes there are lessons to be learned. “It’s what we’re passionate about. We’re not political. It’s not an attack on the government. We’re asking them to assist us with this process.”
Jo Goodman, a co-founder of the group, stressed it was not in litigation against the government. She said the legal action had never started. “So how’s Monday for you, prime minister?”
Goodman said she felt the families had been categorised as “the wrong kind of bereaved people – like the prime minister only wants to meet with bereaved people who won’t ask difficult questions”.
She said the group had experience of serious issues of the handling of the pandemic that she wanted to share, “from deaths in care homes to inadequate protective equipment – that can help him learn crucial lessons and save lives.”
The prime minister had originally agreed to meet the group after he was challenged live on Sky News last week about repeated requests for a face-to-face meeting. The prime minister said he was “not aware” of their letters asking to meet him to discuss their concerns, adding “of course” he would meet them.
However, in a letter seen by the Guardian on Tuesday, Johnson declined to meet the group’s representatives, saying it was “regrettably not possible”.
At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, asked Johnson to reconsider.
“I had the privilege of meeting the families on the 15th of July. They gave me incredibly moving accounts of how Covid-19 had taken their families from them,” he said. “The prime minister will understand the frustration and hurt that he said one thing to the camera and another to them. I urge the prime minister to do the right thing to find time to meet these grieving families.”
Johnson said it was “typical” of Starmer to frame his letter as a refusal to meet bereaved families, but said he would only meet the group once there were no more legal challenges to the government.
“I’m happy to meet with families of the bereaved and I sympathise deeply with all those who have lost loved ones throughout this pandemic and we all feel their pain and grief,” he said. “But it turns out this particular group are currently in litigation against the government and I will certainly meet them when this litigation is concluded.”
The group has called for an immediate public inquiry with a quick-reporting first phase, similar to the Lord Justice Taylor review set up after the Hillsborough disaster, where the first phase reported back in 11 weeks to allow for fast changes to be rolled out in other football stadiums.
Johnson has committed in principle to an independent inquiry but has previously said “now was not the right moment to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry”.
Source: The Guardian