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Senedd Covid-19 committee branded ‘not fit for any purpose’ by bereaved families

UK National Health Service employee Anni Adams looks at new NHS app to trace contacts with people potentially infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) being trialled on Isle of Wight, Britain, May 5, 2020. Picture taken May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Isla Binnie

BEREAVED families have described a Senedd Covid-19 committee as “not fit for any purpose” amid concerns about duplication and a lack of engagement.

The Wales Covid-19 Inquiry Special Purpose Committee, co-chaired by Labour’s Joyce Watson and the Tories’ Tom Giffard, was set up to identify gaps in the UK public inquiry.

However, committee members have so far held two briefings with academics from English universities on civil contingencies – an area covered by the UK inquiry.

The committee argues work on identifying gaps can only begin when the UK Covid-19 inquiry reports, so it is gathering expert advice in the interim.

But Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, who leads Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru, said the gaps are already clear from six weeks of evidence to the judge-led UK inquiry.

Criticising the committee’s suggestion that it will “play it by ear”, she added that the UK inquiry reports are hardly going to identify gaps in its own processes.

She said the academic briefings seem like duplication rather than gap analysis, arguing the public purse should not be footing the bill for bringing MSs up to speed.

A stakeholder event, held in the Welsh Parliament on January 23, was scheduled for an hour-and-a-half but cut short to 45 minutes, leaving families with unanswered questions.

Ms Marsh-Rees, from Abergavenny, whose father died after catching the virus in hospital, criticised a lack of meaningful engagement so far.

She said the committee has failed to fully utilise families’ expertise as core participants in the UK inquiry, raising concerns they have been treated like an annoyance by the committee.

Ms Marsh-Rees stressed the campaign group is not trying to be difficult, saying: “I keep telling them all: we are not doing this for fun – we are doing this to get answers.”

Sam Smith-Higgins, a fellow campaigner, who also lost her father to hospital-acquired Covid-19, said families are in no way at the heart of the committee’s work.

She urged the Senedd to look to the example of the safety net offered by Scotland’s inquiry.

Ms Smith-Higgins said: “In no way is this committee a replacement for a judge-led public inquiry and they do not have the skills or resources to pretend that they can scrutinise anything that comes from the UK inquiry.”

The campaigner described a January 30 briefing as a Btec in civil contingencies, saying: “The worst part of it was they were clearly very focused on the UK Government.

“They didn’t know much about the Welsh Government at all.”

Ms Marsh-Rees cautioned that the Senedd committee heard incorrect advice from academics which risks undermining the UK inquiry.

She said: “It feels to us that this committee isn’t looking at the gaps, it’s almost preparing for the report so it can then defend the Welsh Government.

“There’s much less scrutiny of Wales than the UK, yet they’re even undermining that.”

The committee has met in private four times since it was established in May 2023, with the next meetings on February 20 and March 19 set to be held behind closed doors too.

Ms Smith-Higgins warned that independent scrutiny is non-existent in Wales, saying families felt despondent after witnessing the work of the “ill-thought-out” committee.

She contrasted this with the forensic approach of the UK inquiry, which will sit in Cardiff three weeks from today on February 27.

“It’s like something out of The Vicar of Dibley,” she said, referring to the Wales committee. “It’s just pathetic. Nothing would make me happier than for them to just bin it.”

Warning that the memories of lost loved ones are being “papered over”, she said: “Having listened to what we have listened to so far, it’s better to have nothing than this committee.

“When you’ve got witnesses giving incorrect advice and undermining the UK inquiry, it’s better to have no committee. They are completely wasting their time, our money.”

Ms Marsh-Rees was disappointed when no Labour MSs turned up to a briefing that the bereaved families organised at the Senedd on January 16.

She said: “They should be proud that volunteers are trying to put Wales on the map in a UK inquiry – a UK inquiry they wanted. We have done our best to make sure Wales has parity.”

In a statement, the committee said: “We cannot underestimate the pain and trauma that many across Wales faced throughout the pandemic, and we understand why there is a debate around how in Wales we respond to what happened.

“Our committee has been given a very specific and clear remit, which was agreed by a majority of Members of the Senedd.

“This commits us to looking at the reports of each stage of the UK Covid-19 inquiry, and recommending to the Senedd any gaps that need further examination.

“We can only begin work on identifying these gaps when the UK Covid-19 inquiry reports – the first of which is expected this spring.

“We’ll make sure we involve the public and experts to help us do this. Until then, we are tracking the work of the national inquiry and gathering expert advice to inform our work.

“Those who lost their lives or whose lives were changed forever, and their families, are at the heart of all we are doing.”

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