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Families of COVID-19 victims lobbying for inquiry into UK government's handling of the pandemic

ABC Business logoABC Business 30/06/2020 Europe correspondent Samantha Hawley
a group of people posing for the camera: Matt Fowler (right) wants a COVID-19 inquiry after the death of his father Ian (left). (Supplied: Matt Fowler) © Provided by ABC Business Matt Fowler (right) wants a COVID-19 inquiry after the death of his father Ian (left). (Supplied: Matt Fowler)

Matt Fowler couldn't speak more highly of his father.

Ian Fowler spent 30 years working loyally for Jaguar Land Rover before retiring last year to spend more time at home.

An avid Leeds United football fan, he had a larger than life sense of humour and a deep love for his family.

"He was just the best man I have ever known," Matt Fowler told 7.30.

"My dad was my hero, to be honest."

On March 19, before England had gone into lockdown, Ian Fowler developed COVID-19 symptoms.

Less than a month later on, April 13, he died from the virus, aged 56.

Stuart Goodman, a 73-year-old long-time press photographer, had his first book of art photography published earlier this year, and was given a copy to hold as he lay dying from coronavirus.

His daughter, Jo Goodman, cried as she told 7.30 of the loss her family has endured after his death on April 2.

"I guess everyone thinks their dad is amazing, and my dad was really one of a kind," she said.

"He was someone who just had a real warmth of spirit, he could make anyone laugh."

Campaign for justice

Matt Fowler and Jo Goodman, both 32, are united in grief and anger and are determined to hold the British government accountable for failing to take action early enough to stop the rapid spread of coronavirus.

They've joined forces to establish COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, which now has more than a thousand members who are demanding the government hold an urgent inquiry.

The group is being represented by Elkan Abrahamson, a high-profile human rights lawyer who represented the families of victims of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989, where 96 spectators were crushed to death.

"The families that I am speaking to, I really have to pay tribute to them because they are working through their grief at the same time as devoting an awful lot of time and effort to this campaign," Mr Abrahamson told 7.30.

He said the families are demanding the government hold an inquiry into current decision making, so lives can be saved in the future, and if Prime Minister Boris Johnson refuses, they will take the request to the High Court.

"That would require us going to the High Court and saying to the High Court, the government is acting unreasonably and unlawfully in refusing to hold an inquiry," Mr Abrahamson said.

"And the debate then would be probably be between the government saying, well, we will have some sort of inquiry but we are not going to have it yet, we want to wait until this has all died down, and us saying that the delay itself will cost lives."

When is the right time?

Matt Fowler said he was nervous at the government's decision to reopen almost all elements of the economy on July 4.

"It seems to me that in respect to protecting the UK, more thought was put into protecting the economy and business than it was to protect people," he said.

"The economy might take a hit and people suffer for it, I understand that, but people don't come back from the dead."

The UK's coronavirus official death toll is now more than 44,000 and the number of new cases is still around a thousand a day.

"Let's have somebody look at whether all the currents steps are correct," Mr Abrahamson said.

Boris Johnson has repeatedly said he would not support an inquiry now as the focus should be on that task at hand.

Dr David Nabarro, who acts as a special envoy to the World Health Organisation on COVID-19, agrees that attention shouldn't be redirected elsewhere.

"I'd like to ask that we can postpone what we call the forensic examinations, postpone the after-action reviews until things have calmed down a bit," he said.

"Accountability has to be there, all I'm just pleading for is remember that we've still got a lot of work to do."

'What did they know and when'

Mr Abrahamson said legal action against the government is an option for some of the families down the track.

That could take a number of forms, including families suing hospitals and care homes directly or seeking compensation from the British government for failing to protect life under Article 2 of the European convention, which the UK is still party to.

If the Government refuses calls for an inquiry, the group may resort to a judicial review, which the Goodman family would support.

In their case, they believe Stuart contracted COVID-19 during a routine hospital check up that could have been conducted over the telephone.

"I do think there are huge questions that need to be asked of the government," Jo Goodman said.

"I think we need to know what they knew and when.

"It really seems like action wasn't taken quickly enough and the government hasn't in any way accepted or acknowledged that, which is really hard for the families who are bereaved."

Matt Fowler is determined to fight for his father.

"We really want to get some form of justice for mistakes that have been made, I think that's imperative," he said.

"I think that this is a crucial issue for the people who have lost loved ones.

"I want them to accept and own the mistakes they have made."

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