People write messages in memory of their beloved ones, on the National COVID-19 Memorial Wall, in London, on March 28, 2022. (TOLGA AKMEN / AFP)
LONDON / WASHINGTON – A public inquiry into Britain's response to and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic got underway on Tuesday, with a promise it would get to the truth, and expose any wrongdoing or culpable conduct.
Britain has recorded almost 20 million COVID-19 infections and more than 166,000 deaths – the seventh highest fatality total globally – and former prime minister Boris Johnson and his ministers have faced criticism for their handling of the crisis.
Last year, Johnson ordered the inquiry to look into the preparedness of the country as well as the public health and economic response.
The investigation is being led by former judge Heather Hallett, who held a minute's silence at the beginning of the hearing in memory of those who died.
"The inquiry will analyse our state of readiness for the pandemic and the response to it … and to determine whether that level of loss about which we've just been reflecting was inevitable, or whether things could have been done better," she said.
She said she was determined the inquiry would not "drag on for decades" and her aim was to produce timely reports and recommendations "before another disaster strikes".
Hugo Keith, the lead counsel who provides legal advice to its chair, said the inquiry would be an unprecedented and vast undertaking. It will be divided into a number of modules, beginning with the how prepared Britain was.
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Medical staff wears PPE on a ward for COVID-19 patients at King's College Hospital in south east London on Dec 21, 2021. (VICTORIA JONES / PA VIA AP)
Its duty was "to get to the truth, to ensure that the full facts are revealed, that culpable and discreditable conduct is exposed and brought to public notice, that plainly wrongful decision-making and significant errors of judgement are identified, and that lessons may be properly learned," he said.
"The bereaved and those who have suffered are absolutely entitled to no less."
Last year, a report by the government's spending watchdog said the government was unprepared for a crisis like the pandemic and had been distracted by Britain's departure from the European Union.
Another joint report by lawmakers on parliament's health and science committees also concluded that the delay to England's first coronavirus lockdown was a serious error and that failures in testing positive cases and tracing their contacts exacerbated the crisis.
Johnson's own former top adviser, Dominic Cummings, has said Britain's early plan to combat COVID-19 was a "disaster" and "awful decisions" led to the government imposing lockdowns that could have been avoided.
In this file photo taken on Aug 1, 2020. the cruise ship Norwegian Gem is seen moored in the Port of Miami. (DANIEL SLIM / AFP)
Norwegian Cruise Line said on Monday it was easing COVID-19 safety measures on its ships by dropping requirements for testing, masking and vaccination, as the pandemic loosens its grip on the world.
The decision by the cruise line comes after several countries lifted testing requirements for international air travelers as people return to pre-pandemic lifestyles across the globe.
The cruise line, owned by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd, said even with the easing of its health and safety protocols, which will be effective Oct 4, it would continue to follow travel guidelines as required by the destinations it visits.
The cruise industry was among the worst hit during the pandemic, as countries went into a lockdown mode to curb the spread of the virus.
However, with the reopening of the world, the sector is showing signs of stability and dropping mandatory COVID-19 testing requirements.
The cruise operator said in August that it was relaxing its safety policies for vaccinated guests on Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, starting September.
Rivals Carnival Corp and Royal Caribbean Group have also dropped mandatory testing for guests vaccinated against COVID-19 on some of their cruise lines.
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A traveler adjusts his face mask as he walks through the arrivals area at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Nov 30, 2021. (JAE C. HONG / FILE / AP)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday it had ended its COVID-19 country travel health notices as fewer countries reported enough data for accurate assessments.
In April, the CDC dropped its "Do Not Travel" COVID-19 recommendations for about 90 international destinations, saying it would its reserve Level 4 travel health notices "for special circumstances." Level 4 calls for all Americans avoiding travel because of COVID-19, even those who are fully vaccinated.
The CDC said on Monday "as fewer countries are testing or reporting COVID-19 cases, CDC’s ability to accurately assess the COVID-19 (travel health notice) levels for most destinations that American travelers visit is limited."
Since April, the notices have drawn little attention since the CDC was not issuing blanket recommendations against travel for specific countries.
As recently as March, the CDC recommended against travel to about 120 countries and territories worldwide, or more than half of all destinations.
CDC said on Monday it will only post a travel health notice "for a country if a situation, such as a concerning COVID-19 variant, is identified that changes CDC travel recommendations for that country."
A child high fives a pharmacist after he received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for kids at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut on Nov 2, 2021. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP)
Meanwhile, the CDC on Tuesday estimated that nearly 13 percent of the circulating coronavirus variants in the United States were of the BA.4.6 subvariant of Omicron, as of the week ended Oct 1.
The latest data showed BA.4.6, which has been slowly rising in the last few weeks, made up nearly 22 percent of the cases in the region that includes the states of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BA.4 were estimated to make up 81.3 percent and 1.1 percent, respectively, of the circulating variants in the US, the data showed.
Separately, almost 14.8 million children in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, according to the latest report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children's Hospital Association.
Nearly 238,000 of these cases have been added in the past four weeks. Approximately 6.9 million reported cases have been added in 2022, according to the report.