As Dominic Cummings began speaking at the joint inquiry by the Commons’ health select committee and the science and technology committee into the handling of Covid-19 on Wednesday, sitting laid-back in his unbuttoned white shirt, I was intrigued. But I couldn’t have anticipated how agonising the next seven hours would be.
I lost my dad in the first wave of the pandemic in April 2020. He fell ill just after the first lockdown was announced. It started off with a temperature, then coughing, before later being taken to hospital.
We waited five hours for the ambulance. I called 999 three times, on each occasion updating them on my dad’s deteriorating state. I sat by his side coaching him on how to breathe. He would have ignored me normally, but I saw the desperation in his eyes. Dad let me brush his hair as he slowly breathed what little oxygen he had left in his body.
The ambulance eventually came, but was it too late? Should I have called the ambulance earlier? Was the hospital right to put him on a ventilator so soon? Did my dad get the virus because our government failed to close the borders and lock down sooner?
These are just some of the questions that haunt families like mine every day. And listening to Cummings’ testimony it became clear that our worst fears were true: my dad’s death might have been avoidable.
I can’t begin to explain how painful it was to hear claims that, while the virus that would kill my dad was spreading across the country, Boris Johnson was calling it “kung flu” and suggesting he inject himself with it live on television; to hear that, as many of those who would go on to die were catching the virus, the government was discussing “chickenpox parties”, asking “who needs to die” and were resolute that the British public “would never accept lockdowns”; to hear that even by 13 March 2020, around when my dad likely caught the virus, the government was in total disarray, with top civil servants apparently claiming, “There is no plan, we’re in huge trouble.”
There is nothing the government or Cummings can do to bring back my dad, or any of our loved ones. But the least they can do is treat those grieving with respect and dignity. Wednesday’s spectacle, complete with snippets put out on Twitter beforehand to “build a buzz”, was the opposite of that.
My family feels the pain of losing my dad every single day, and we deserve better than having our trauma treated as a political football. This is one of the reasons we need an urgent public inquiry: it is clear now that the truth is going to come out one way or the other, the question is whether it’s done respectfully or in pantomime displays like the one we witnessed on Wednesday.
After my dad passed away, I joined Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, to support and be supported by others who have had the same experience. The organisation has more than 4,000 members, just some of the relatives of the 152,000 who have died of Covid-19. As autumn approached, it was horrifying to see more and more families join with stories almost identical to ours.
It was unsurprising but deeply upsetting to hear claims from Cummings that, as cases rose again in the autumn, Johnson was as flippant, uncaring and cavalier as ever, even talking of “letting the bodies pile high”.
Bereaved Families for Justice spent last summer campaigning for a rapid review so key lessons could be learned ahead of any further loss of life in the winter. But the government ignored us, refusing to even meet with us on seven different occasions. By January, the UK had recorded more than 100,000 deaths.
The best way we can ensure lessons are learned, and more families are not left to experience the pain and grief that mine has, is for the inquiry to start immediately and include a rapid review phase. This was used in the Hillsborough and Grenfell inquiries and would mean an interim report would be produced before the end of the year, with key lessons to avoid further loss of life.
The government says it is too busy for this, but this doesn’t add up when it also says it has conducted its own review, which it won’t publish. It seems like it just wants to avoid scrutiny. Why not make the results of its review public? How can it say this is the best way to protect lives? And how can anything other than that be its priority?
Since Wednesday, Johnson has hit back at calls for an urgent inquiry and is sticking to 2022 as the date it will go ahead. But we need an inquiry now: families like mine deserve to know what went wrong and not to rely on disgruntled former employees to speak out. We all deserve a government that does everything it can to learn lessons and prevent further loss of life. We deserve an inquiry.