Northern Ireland news

British government to set up independent public inquiry into handling of Covid pandemic

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced there would an independent public inquiry into the handling of Covid pandemic. Picture by House of Commons/PA Wire.
Marie Louise McConville

THE Executive will meet on Thursday to further consider easing coronavirus restrictions with international travel among the issues on the agenda.

The meeting will take place less than a fortnight before a number of restrictions are due to lift on the indicative date of Monday May 24.

While some close contact services, gyms, outdoor hospitality and shops have already reopened, many other restrictions, introduced on Boxing Day, remain in place.

It is hoped that from May 24, unlicensed and licensed premises can reopen indoors, visits to indoor domestic settings can resume and other indoor visitor and cultural attractions can open their doors.

First Minister Arlene Foster said it is "safe to say" the Executive will also be discussing international travel - and also whether hugs will be allowed.

"We know that there is a lot of people who have been waiting for that time, I know certainly I have in terms of my own mother, so I am looking forward to being able to have those discussions," she said.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill added: "We are hoping that we'll be able to make some progress around all these things, we are in a really good place in terms of the pandemic, we are winning".

The Executive meeting will take place as 113 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Northern Ireland, however no further deaths were recorded.

The death toll remains at 2,148.

It comes as the British Government said it would set up an independent public inquiry with statutory powers into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs the inquiry, which was welcomed by some bereaved families, will begin in spring 2022 and will place "the state's actions under the microscope".

The inquiry will be able to take oral evidence under oath, he said, adding that the state has an obligation "to learn every lesson for the future".

It comes as a damning report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO), said a quicker international response could have stopped the 2019 Covid-19 outbreak in China becoming a global catastrophe.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Johnson outlined the impact of the pandemic so far and added: "Amid such tragedy the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and as candidly as possible, and to learn every lesson for the future - which is why I've always said when the time is right there should be a full and independent inquiry.

"So, I can confirm today that the Government will establish an independent public inquiry on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 - including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence in public under oath."

He said devolved administrations would be consulted before the final scope of the inquiry was published.

Meanwhile, Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has said travel between Britain and Ireland could be restored by the summer period.

Speaking at a virtual conference for publicans in Ireland, Mr Vardakar said: "One thing I would like to see and this would be very good for places like Kerry, is a return to travel between Ireland and the United Kingdom, a return to the Common Travel Area as it's supposed to be, travel between Britain and Ireland with no restrictions.

"I think I can make the case for that, they've been very successful in Britain with their vaccine programme, they're ahead of us in terms of vaccination," he said.

There were 448 new cases of Covid-19 and a further eight deaths recorded yesterday in the Republic.

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