Bereaved relatives have said they are devastated that the Covid-19 inquiry will not conduct public hearings on the pandemic’s impact on social care until 2025.
Relatives of people in care homes during the pandemic have persistently called for politicians and care leaders to be held accountable for the way the outbreak was handled within the sector, and the deaths of 20,000 care home residents.
Naomi Fulop, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the additional two-year wait for answers was “absolutely wrong”.
Ms Fulop’s 94-year-old mother died of Covid in January 2021, during the height of the second wave. She had been living at home but was transferred to hospital when she fell ill with coronavirus.
Restrictions in place at the time meant Ms Fulop and her siblings could not visit their mother in hospital after spending months apart from her to keep her safe.
It was only when she was moved to end-of-life care one of them was permitted to visit – but her mother’s rapid deterioration meant they did not make it in time, an experience she said “remains very painful”.
Ms Fulop said: “We need to know way before then the implications for the care sector, the thousands and thousands of people who died in care homes and also [those] receiving domiciliary care like my mother.”
She added: “There could be another pandemic before then and we won’t have learnt the lessons.”
Ms Fulop said she appreciated the huge task the inquiry but suggested some investigations could take place in parallel to condense the process.
Helen Wildbore, director of Care Rights UK, formed following a merger of campaign group Rights for Residents and charity Relatives & Residents Association, said examining the impact on the social care sector should be a priority.
The care sector investigation will be the inquiry’s final module, opening in December, before public hearings in spring 2025.
Ms Wildbore said: “It is hugely disappointing that the public inquiry won’t even start examining vital questions about the impact on social care until the end of this year. The pandemic and the response to it had a catastrophic impact on people living in care, who to this day are still living under Government Covid guidance.”
She added that the findings could come “too late” for many.
“Social care should have been top of the list for examination so that vital lessons can be implemented urgently, before it is too late for too many more people. This will be a devastating blow to families so desperate for answers,” Ms Wildbore said.
The inquiry, which will examine the UK’s preparedness for and response to the pandemic and its impact, will start its first public hearings two weeks from now on 13 June.
The first three stages will look into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and resilience, core political and administrative decision making in the UK and devolved administrations, and the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems.
On Tuesday, a further three modules were announced that will examine vaccines, therapeutics and anti-viral treatment across the UK, the Government procurement process and social care.
Baroness Hallett, chair of the inquiry, said: “Last year, I promised I would work hard to ensure the whole of the UK can learn useful lessons from the pandemic as quickly as possible.”
Campaigners have supported the chair’s response to the Cabinet Office’s failure to hand over Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and notebooks from during the height of the pandemic.
Ms Fulop said the row was “disrespectful” but that she hoped Baroness Hallett would stand firm and continue to insist the documents are handed over.
She said: “Disappointing is an understatement. It’s disrespectful to the inquiry and it’s disrespectful to those of us who are bereaved, and the many millions of people in this country who are affected in different ways by the pandemic.”
Susie Flintham, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “The lengths that the Cabinet Office are going to in order to stop Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages and diaries from being shared with the Covid Inquiry should alarm everyone. This inquiry needs to get to the facts if it is to learn lessons to help save lives in the next pandemic. So why are the Cabinet Office standing in their way? Frankly, you fear the worst about what they’re hiding.”