The Guardian view on the Covid inquiry: time to bring it on

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F aced with Dominic Cummings’ fusillade against Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the government on Thursday circled the wagons. As a short-term expedient, it made grubby tactical sense. The Conservative party believes public feeling is on its side because of the vaccination programme. Mr Cummings is mistrusted because of the Barnard Castle debacle. The former Downing Street adviser has not yet published the documents that may corroborate his claims. This added up to a window of opportunity for ministers to dismiss the allegations as false or unsubstantiated, and for Tory MPs to put on a display of unity behind the health secretary, Matt Hancock.

It was not, though, a morally dignified exercise, especially in the light of Mr Cummings’ grave claims that tens of thousands of British people died unnecessarily because of the government’s failures and that Mr Johnson is not fit to be prime minister. In political terms, it may not be a sustainable position either. The charges levelled on Thursday by Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth were substantive and serious. Fourteen months ago, Mr Hancock promised a protective shield around care homes; yet 30,000 care home residents died. He promised extensive supplies of personal protective equipment; yet up to 8,700 patients and 850 health workers died after contracting the virus in hospitals. These shocking facts are not going to go away.

Mr Ashworth underscored all this with clarity. As he put it, either the Cummings allegations are true or false. If they are true, Mr Hancock’s airy public assurances that all was well last spring, repeated on Thursday, breached the ministerial code and the Nolan principles of conduct in public life. If they were false, Mr Johnson employed a fantasist and a liar as his assistant and chief adviser at a time of the highest national peril. For the present, the Cummings allegations remain unproven. Yet they are out there. Mr Johnson’s typically casual claim that they do not “bear any relation to reality” is a worthless assurance in the light of the two men’s Brexit campaign lies. Mr Hancock and Mr Johnson each remain profoundly at risk when the verdict comes in.

When will that be? The answer depends on public opinion and political pressure. Mr Cummings’ evidence may not in itself be a total gamechanger for the reasons stated. But the gravity of what he said boosts the case for the promised public inquiry to start work before 2022. Britain needs reliable answers to big questions, and it needs them soon. The government is wrong to pretend that the public is only interested in vaccines and holidays. As Mr Cummings pointed out this week, ministers have consistently underestimated the public’s seriousness.

The select committees promise their report before the summer. Publication is certain to ratchet up the pressure even further. The strength of Mr Cummings’ documents will help determine the issue too. The strength of the now dominant variant first detected in India also poses challenging questions to a government that still appears to underestimate what it is facing, just as it did in the spring and autumn of 2020.

The key demand now should be to get the official public inquiry under way. Mr Johnson does not want this. He says the focus must be on fighting the pandemic. He has to be pressured to change his mind. There is no good reason why a modern democracy like Britain cannot start an inquiry while the pandemic continues. The wartime Britain that Mr Johnson loves to evoke would not have had a moment’s hesitation. The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, has called for Mr Johnson to appoint the chair and any further members of the inquiry panel “within days”. When parliament returns after its Whitsun recess, MPs of all parties should make this a top priority. The bereaved and Britain deserve no less.

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