Boris Johnson has been branded “heartless” by families of coronavirus victims after failing to honour a pledge to meet them.
He has been accused of a U-turn less than a week after he said “of course” he would meet representatives of relatives of COVID-19 victims.
Mr Johnson has dismayed campaigners by telling them in a letter it is “regrettably not possible” and he is unable to meet them.
Last week, during a school visit, the prime minister was asked about requests for a meeting from the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group.
“I am not aware of those letters,” he replied. “But of course we will write back to every letter we get. And of course I will meet the bereaved who have suffered from COVID. Of course I will do that.”
Six days later, the group, which represents more than 1,600 people who have lost a relative to coronavirus and is demanding an independent inquiry, says it has now received a reply to its fifth letter requesting a meeting.
In the letter, the prime minister wrote: “I am acutely conscious that a letter will be of little comfort against the grief and heartbreak that families have suffered.
“However, I wanted to offer my sincere condolences to all the families who have lost loved ones to this terrible disease.
“I know from my own experience how debilitating its effects are and can only imagine the pain and despair of those families that have been bereaved.
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“As I work to manage the response to the pandemic, I will of course meet members of the public and key workers who have been bereaved as a result of COVID-19. Each story of loss motivates me to ensure that we beat this virus together.”
But in a blow to the campaigners’ hopes, he wrote: “As much as I would wish to be able to offer my condolences in person to all those who have suffered loss, that is regrettably not possible and so I am unable to meet with you and members of Bereaved Families for Justice.”
Mr Johnson added: “As for the issue of an independent inquiry, the government has always been clear that there will be opportunities to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of COVID-19. As I have made clear previously, this will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time.”
Reacting furiously to the prime minister’s letter, the co-founder of COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, Jo Goodman, who lost her father Stuart to the virus, told Sky News: “It’s a U-turn followed by a U-turn.”
She said: “The prime minister has done a 360: dodging five letters, then agreeing on live TV to meet with us, and now quietly telling us he’s too busy. It’s heartless.
“Of course we know the prime minister can’t meet every bereaved person: but we really feel he should be meeting one of the largest groups of bereaved families in the country, representing over 1,600 people who’ve lost a loved one.
“It feels like we’re the wrong type of bereaved people: like the prime minister only wants to meet with people who will smile and not ask difficult questions.”
The group says it is calling for an independent, judge-led, statutory public inquiry with an urgent first phase which reports back in weeks, in order to learn critical lessons which can save lives as the pandemic continues.
“We think it’s critical the PM hears the experiences of families bereaved by COVID-19, many of whom can shed light on serious systemic and policy failings that contributed to the death of their loved ones: from deaths in care homes to inadequate protective equipment,” said Ms Goodman.
“We need an immediate public inquiry with a quick-reporting first phase in order to learn lessons and save lives as the crisis continues.
“After the Hillsborough Disaster, the Taylor Review reported back in just 11 weeks: allowing changes to be rolled out in other football stadiums to protect the public.
“If the prime minister had replied to our first letter back in June, a rapid review could be reporting right now: giving crucial lessons on how to save lives as the virus spikes again, as we’re seeing in locations in Europe and across the country.”