UK appoints ex-judge to head COVID-19 inquiry in 2022

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The British government says a public inquiry into Britain’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will be led by a retired judge and start next year

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said former Court of Appeal judge Heather Hallett will chair the COVID-19 inquiry, which is due to begin in spring 2022.

“She brings a wealth of experience to the role and I know shares my determination that the inquiry examines in a forensic and thoroughgoing way the government’s response to the pandemic,” Johnson said.

After pressure from bereaved families, Johnson agreed to hold an inquiry on his government’s handling of the pandemic, which has left more than 146,000 people in Britain dead. The probe will have the power to summon evidence and to question witnesses under oath.

Britain is currently facing a surge in coronavirus cases due to the omicron variant. The country recorded 78,610 new virus cases on Wednesday, the most confirmed in a day since the start of the pandemic. Deaths remain far lower than during previous peaks, due to vaccines, and the government is trying to give everyone 18 and up a booster dose by the end of the year.

The pressure group Bereaved Families for Justice said the announcement of a chairperson to lead the promised inquiry was a “positive step” but “comes far too late.”

“We’ve been calling for an inquiry since the end of the first wave, and we will never know how many lives could have been saved had the government had a rapid review phase in summer 202,” said Matt Fowler, the group’s co-founder. “With the omicron variant upon us, the inquiry really cannot come soon enough.”

Hallett said she would be consulting bereaved families and others on the inquiry’s terms of reference.

“I shall do my utmost to ensure the inquiry answers as many questions as possible about the U.K.’s response to the pandemic so that we can all learn lessons for the future,” she said.

Hallett oversaw inquests into the deaths of 52 people killed in the July 7, 2005 bombings on London’s transit system. Last month, she was appointed to lead an inquiry into the death of Dawn Sturgess, who died in 2018 after being exposed to Novichok, the Soviet-made nerve agent used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.

Because of Hallett’s position with the COVID-19 probe, the government plans to find someone else to lead the inquiry to explore allegations of Russian involvement in Sturgess’ death.

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Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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