Bereaved families ‘increasingly marginalised’ in Covid-19 inquiry
Bereaved Covid families believed they would be at the heart of the inquiry. Instead they say they are being silenced
Jean Adamson’s father Aldrick was living in a care home when coronavirus hit. Unable to care for himself following a stroke, he caught the virus in April 2020 and gradually became sicker. His room was on the bottom floor, so his family would come to the window to see him. He died alone.
“I wasn’t able to be with my dad, sit with him or offer him any comfort,” says Adamson. “That will stay with me for the rest of my life – that my father died on his own without even so much as a family member being there to hold his hand.”
At the time, those with Covid-19 symptoms were still being discharged out of hospitals into care homes without having to be isolated, and care home staff were not being provided with adequate sick pay to stay home if they were ill. Adamson believes her father’s death was directly linked to government policy, which did not require a negative test for people returning to care homes from hospital. A court case challenging this decision in April last year found that it was unlawful.
It’s policies like this that will be explored in the Covid-19 inquiry, which officially began in June last year. This summer will likely see the core part of the inquiry – the evidence-giving – where key government figures could be interviewed.
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Baroness Heather Hallett, the judge leading the inquiry, promised families who had lost loved ones that they would be at “the heart” of the process.
But six months into the inquiry, are their voices being heard?
“What has followed really hasn’t lived up to those words,” Adamson tells openDemocracy. “As families of the bereaved, we have found ourselves becoming increasingly marginalised in the process.”
Adamson says the campaign’s legal team has not been consulted on key legal decisions, and shared concerns over a ‘listening project’ – a process where bereaved families can talk about their experience of the pandemic – which has been outsourced to third party companies to run alongside the inquiry.
In September, the inquiry was criticised for a conflict of interest after it considered PR agencies who had worked for the government to support the listening project. It later appointed M&C Saatchi, who had worked on the government’s obesity campaign following the pandemic, as well as having previously worked on the Conservative Party’s 2010 election campaign.
At the time, a spokesperson for the inquiry said: “The UK Covid-19 Inquiry is completely independent of the government,” and added that “the inquiry has robust processes in place to deal with conflicts of interest.”
But Adamson disagrees. “We feel that we are being silenced, effectively – that our voices have been stifled – and we object in the strongest terms to having our stories handled by a third party.”
She adds: “We want the truth. We want the truth to come out and to be heard.”
The government has already been criticised for refusing to release key documents related to the pandemic. In December, the Department of Health and Social Care said it would take the information watchdog to court to avoid having to hand openDemocracy its secret Covid review.
Amos Waldman also lost a family member in a care home during the pandemic. His grandma, Sheila Lamb, died soon after she moved in.
“I'm most hoping [the inquiry means] that the families like ours don’t have to go through what we’ve been through,” he told openDemocracy. “So far, we haven't been as central as we thought we would.”
The UK’s Covid-19 inquiry includes three modules. Module one will cover resilience and preparedness, module two will cover decision-making in the UK and module three is about the NHS. Once all preliminary stages of these modules are complete (module three’s preliminary stage begins in February), the evidence-giving stage will begin. This is where it’s likely people like Matt Hancock, who was health secretary at the time, and Boris Johnson, who was prime minister, will be interviewed about their decisions.
Some who are listening carefully to the Covid-19 inquiry were on the front line themselves. Saleyha Ahsan was an emergency and intensive care doctor working during the pandemic, who also documented her experiences. In the second wave of the UK’s pandemic, her father, Ahsan-ul-Haq Chaudry, became ill from coronavirus and died.
“It was horrific,” says Ahsan. “After that, my entire family caught Covid so we went from my dad’s death, his funeral, to then every one of my siblings having Covid. It was a very traumatic time. Then to learn that Number 10 had been having parties… it makes me feel nauseous.”
Ahsan hopes government figures will be held to account in the inquiry. “My concern is also that those that were in the wrong will not be made accountable,” she says. “I know this is an inquiry not a criminal case. But obviously, with inquiries, it can lead to events that lead to prosecutions, and frankly, I think there does need to be some along the way because there was considerable wrongdoing.”
Rivka Gottlieb, whose parents were both hospitalised during the pandemic, also fears the inquiry will fail to hold people to account.
“I’m nervous about what’s going to transpire,” she says. “What evidence will be heard, who will be giving testimony and how it’s going to go. I’m worried that it’s going to be a tick-box exercise that’s just going to whitewash everything.”
Gottlieb’s father went into hospital after days of struggling with the illness at home. Numerous calls to 111 did not provide him or his wife, who also later became ill, with any helpful advice, she says. Her father Michael later died in hospital, and her mother still suffers from long Covid and depression after the trauma of the pandemic.
A spokesperson for the inquiry said: “Baroness Hallett has made clear the experiences of the bereaved and those most impacted by the pandemic will be central to the work of the inquiry.
“The chair and the inquiry team have met and consulted with the bereaved, and others who have suffered hardship and loss, wherever possible to inform and develop its work. The inquiry’s legal team meet regularly with legal teams representing bereaved families.
“The inquiry is developing an extensive, nationwide, listening exercise that will enable thousands of people across the UK to share their experiences of the pandemic. It has appointed research and communications specialists to support this.”
Gottlieb told openDemocracy: “The delay over calling the first lockdown cost my dad’s life. I want transparency and accountability.
“I think if the truth comes out, of what happened and how decisions were made instead of burying things, then we can learn. We need to make meaning out of catastrophic loss.”
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