UK’s Johnson finally agrees to meet COVID-bereaved group

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Tuesday finally meet with members of the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaigning group, who for more than a year have sharply criticized his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson’s Downing Street office confirmed Monday that the prime minister will hold a “private meeting” with members of the group.

At the meeting, the group said family members will tell the stories of how their loved ones caught the virus and reiterate their calls for a statutory inquiry into the pandemic to start soon.

The group, which has requested a meeting with Johnson on at least eight occasions, has asked for it to take place outside and that social distancing is observed — even though all restrictions on social contact have been lifted.

“It has been over a year since the prime minister first said he would meet us and in that time over 100,000 people across the country have lost their lives with COVID-19,” said Jo Goodman, co-founder of the group.

“One of the hardest parts of the pandemic for us has been seeing new families join each week with the same pain and grief that we’ve experienced and distressingly similar stories to our own,” she added.

The U.K. has recorded the world’s eighth-highest virus-related death tolls with more than 136,000 deaths, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

With daily infections in the U.K. running at a relatively high daily average of 35,000 and widely expected to ratchet higher in coming months as more people gather indoors, there are concerns that many more thousands of people will die. But the government is hoping that high vaccination levels — 82% of the adult population — and common-sense behavior will drastically reduce the numbers of deaths.

Johnson and his Conservative government have faced an array of criticisms from COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice since it was formed in May 2020 and others, including delaying lockdown announcements, a too-lax travel policy and a shortage of crucial personal protective equipment.

COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which has around 4,000 members, have been calling for a public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic so lessons can be learned to limit future virus-related deaths.

After months of deflecting those calls, Johnson confirmed in May that a public inquiry will start to hear evidence next year. However, COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice thinks that’s too late and that the delay could lead to many more people dying with the virus this winter.

“We first called for a rapid review last summer so that lessons could be learnt from the deaths of our loved ones to protect others, and we can’t help but feel that if we’d been listened to then, other lives might have been spared,” Goodman said.

“We hope that the prime minister will listen to us tomorrow, and start the process to begin the inquiry immediately, whilst ensuring that the perspective of bereaved families is at its heart,” she added.

The group has also been behind the creation of the National COVID Memorial Wall, which runs opposite Parliament. It is decorated with more than 150,000 red hearts, each one representing a life lost during the pandemic — other measures put the death toll higher because in the early days of the pandemic, there was very little testing for the virus.

Johnson visited the wall in April but did so late in the evening, further angering family members who accused him of using the “cover of darkness” to dodge meeting them.


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