Conference urged to fight for truth and justice in COVID inquiry

Delegates heard from Professor Lyn Sudbury-Riley about her work with COVID Bereaved Families for Justice, as the pandemic public inquiry began

Professor Lynn Sudbury-Riley at 2023 NDC

UNISON’s national delegate conference in Liverpool opened its afternoon session yesterday with Professor Lynn Sudbury-Riley speaking of her work with the COVID Bereaved Families for Justice.

She opened by saying: “Today is a special day, because while there have been lots of rounds of preliminary hearings and meetings, today, the public hearings for the COVID-19 inquiry finally begin.”

She explained the importance of the inquiry to her, personally, “due to the way my lovely dad died back in March 2020 – he’d gone into the Royal Liverpool Hospital not far from here because of a foot operation a few weeks earlier.

“During those weeks, as a family we’re watching the news and seeing what’s happening in other parts of the world – especially Italy – we’re listening to what their doctors and their healthcare workers are saying, but not everyone would listen would they?”

The professor told delegates that, while her father was in hospital, and before lockdown, the Champions league match between Liverpool and Athletico Madrid went ahead, adding: “Ironically, those Madrid fans wouldn’t have been allowed to attend such a sporting event in their own country, but they were allowed to come here.”

Noting that, on 19 March 2020, the prime minister was still announcing that we could ‘turn the tide’ on COVID in just 12 weeks, she said: “Clearly our government wasn’t looking after its citizens, so we as a family decided to stop visiting our dad, no way did we want to start risking taking the virus into him. But it was to no avail.

“Lockdown eventually came on 23 March and four days later, we discovered my dad had COVID, caught in the hospital, despite our efforts as a family. We then began begging to be allowed to see him but were denied. My dad died, alone, two days later.”

Professor Sudbury-Riley spoke of her and her family’s inability to properly grieve both through the denial of normal mourning rituals, coupled with the fact that “we knew we should have been locked down earlier”.

This had compelled her to start working with the COVID Bereaved Families for Justice and how that only confirmed her and her families experiences.

Why ‘Partygate’ matters so much

“This is why ‘Partygate’ matters so much,” she continued. “To find out our government were having jollies while our families died, is beyond obscene.

“But it wasn’t just us, as families, who were enduring such horrendous experiences; you all, as public service workers, were. You too must be incandescent when you hear about their parties – how they flouted their own rules for their own pleasure.”

On the inquiry she said: “There was a very real fear among bereaved families that the inquiry would not be fair. Time and again people drew analogies with the fight for justice with the Hillsborough victims and what those families went through. And they were worried that when our inquiry came it would be a whitewash.

“Today is not just the day when the enquiry starts properly – today is a day when many of my colleagues are out there demonstrating in London. They are demonstrating about how the inquiry is already trying to exclude us, they are demonstrating against a potential whitewash.”

She highlighted that the chair of the inquiry’s fightback against the government’s obstruction of the enquiry and lack of co-operation and saying: “It provides some hope that perhaps it won’t be sanitised or useless after all, and we hope that it can get to the truth, learn lessons from the truth and save lives in the future”.

She finished by calling on delegates to keep fighting to ensure this happens: “We must keep engaging with the inquiry to shape it and point out to it when it loses its way. We must do this with all the other core participants because we are all fighting for the same thing – for truth, for justice, and we can do this in solidarity”.

The effects of the pandemic

After Professor Sudbury-Riley spoke, delegates debated a motion on the national crisis of stress and its effects on public service workers, which touched on the continuing effects of the COVID pandemic.

The mover, Becky Everitt from the East Midlands, said “As we’ve just heard from our wonderful guest speaker, COVID is still having a massive impact on our public service workers.

“It is essential that we acknowledge the toll that this pandemic has taken on the mental and physical wellbeing.”

One delegate noted that there have more people off with stress now than with physical injuries – ‘slips, trips and falls’ – calling it “a warning sign”.

The motion called on the NEC to develop a stress charter for members to hold employers to account, to support a national campaign expanding on the Be On The Safe Side campaign and to develop the work of health and safety reps and forums.