Britain's COVID-19 response inquiry enters a second phase with political decisions in the spotlight

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LONDON (AP) — Britain’s inquiry into the response to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the nation entered its second phase Tuesday, with political decision-making around major developments, such as the timing of lockdowns, taking center stage.

For the first time, the inquiry heard emotional WhatsApp messages and diary entries from key participants during the crucial stages of the pandemic starting in January 2020, when the virus started to spread around the world.

But families whose loved ones died during the pandemic voiced their concern that the new stage of the investigation — the so-called Module 2, the second of four planned phases — is ignoring how they were failed by politicians and policymakers.

Many held a silent protest outside the inquiry in London holding portraits of their deceased loved ones, and stood beside a banner which read “Stop silencing the bereaved.” The U.K. had one of the world’s deadliest outbreaks, with around 230,000 coronavirus-related deaths up to Sept. 28, according to government statistics.

"I hope the inquiry has access to evidence it needs which includes evidence from the bereaved," said Lorelei King, 69, who lost her actor husband Vincent Marzello, 72, in March 2020. “They have taken impact statements, but we have much more to provide. Many of us were eyewitnesses to what went on during that time.”

Chair Judge Heather Hallett insisted that the voices of the bereaved won't be ignored during this stage of the inquiry, which will focus on the U.K. government’s actions during the crisis. The first phase, which concluded in July, looked at the country's preparedness for the pandemic.

“The need for me to reach conclusions and make recommendations to reduce suffering in the future when the next pandemic hits the U.K. is pressing,” she said. “I say when the next pandemic hits the U.K., because the evidence in Module 1 suggested it is not if another pandemic will hit us, but when.”

She said the focus of the current phase will be “on governance and key decision-making at a high level in the United Kingdom during the time when the pandemic was at its worst, and when it caused so much suffering.”

An array of experts and politicians are set to testify during the current phase, which is due to end on Dec. 14.

Lead counsel Hugo Keith outlined the chronology of the pandemic in the U.K. and raised questions about the way decisions were taken. He said messages between then prime minister, Boris Johnson, his adviser Dominic Cummings and others “betray a depressing picture of a toxic atmosphere” with “factional infighting” and attacks on colleagues.

Johnson will be in particular focus in this stage of the inquiry, and is set to give evidence. Johnson stood down as leader in September 2022, partly because of lockdown-flouting parties in his office at No. 10 Downing Street during the pandemic.

Keith also quoted from the diary of former chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, in which he noted “Number 10 chaos as usual."

Before Keith laid out the questions that will be addressed, the inquiry heard emotional video testimonies from families who lost loved ones or whose children have suffered long-term physical and mental effects of the virus, so-called long COVID.

During the video, an older widower, who was only identified as Alan, shook as he recalled his wife’s death and funeral.

“There were only eight people allowed to attend, and then to find out the later revelations that the day of my wife’s funeral, under those draconian restrictions, our government officials were holding parties on the same day," he said. "My wife deserved better.”