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Editorial Relatives of the dead must be at the heart of Britain’s Covid inquiry

CORE participant status for families of Britain’s Covid dead would put the focus of the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic where it needs to be — on the victims.

Ministers excuse the delay in holding the inquiry on the grounds that those we need to give evidence currently have their hands full battling the pandemic.

But the cost of waiting is not just the risk that the eventual process will be divorced from news agendas and its findings easier to sweep under the carpet — the fate of investigations from Lord Chilcot’s Iraq war inquiry to the ongoing probe into the Grenfell Tower fire, whose truly shocking revelations have yet to prompt serious reform or even much in the way of parliamentary debate.

By ducking scrutiny of its record while Covid continues to spread, the government can get away with repeating decisions that cost lives the first time round.

John’s Campaign, the Relatives and Residents Association and the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice groups’ call for a recognised role should make it harder for ministers to brush aside the terrible truth, highlighted by medical professionals, trade unions, zero-Covid campaigners and this newspaper long before hitting the headlines when voiced by former Tory strategist Dominic Cummings: “Tens of thousands died who didn’t need to die.”

This is the most significant fact when it comes to assessing the impact of coronavirus on Britain.

Our staggering death toll — over 155,000 — remains among the highest in the world.

The catastrophic approaches of governments like those of Brazil and Colombia might have produced even grimmer mortality statistics; the continued rampage of the virus through India and Africa when deaths in the West are now far lower, because of the vaccine rollouts, might give the illusion that Britain is no longer one of the world’s disaster stories. 

Some opponents of a zero-Covid strategy (the term for a co-ordinated approach aimed at suppressing virus transmission rather than managing it) even point to new outbreaks in some countries that have adopted it, such as Australia or China, as evidence that it hasn’t worked — though these outbreaks remain minor.

So we should be clear: countries that adopted a zero-Covid strategy have a far better record of protecting their peoples from the virus than countries that did not, while also suffering significantly less economic disruption.

According to the statista website’s daily updated totals Britain’s Covid death toll stands at 1,938 per million, at the higher end of the range for rich Western countries (Italy’s figure is 2,124, the US’s 1,863, France’s 1,635).

Countries that made a real effort to eliminate the virus include Thailand (76 deaths per million), Australia (37), New Zealand (five), China (3.5). 

The extraordinary diversity of these countries gives the lie to the idea that a suppression strategy would only work under particular political, social or geographical conditions that Britain lacks.

Yet there are deep-rooted reasons, beyond the undoubted callousness, corruption and incompetence of the British government, why coronavirus claimed so many lives in Britain.

Our broken, privatised care home system, reliant on insecure labour, is one: in 2020 contracted-out care workers were shunted from home to home, unwittingly spreading the virus to those most at risk from it.

The extreme weakness of workers’ rights is another, with workers lacking sick pay unable to afford to isolate. 

The chronic underfunding and understaffing of the NHS is a third. The dependence of the state on outsourcing core public health functions to businesses whose expertise is limited to securing contracts is a fourth.

Learning the lessons means overhauling a rotten political and economic order that is directly responsible for deaths on a massive scale.

It will not happen unless those who have lost the most are given a voice. Relatives of the victims must have core participant status in the public inquiry.

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