By William James and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an inquiry next year into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that is likely to focus on why the United Kingdom suffered Europe's worst death toll and one of the world's deepest economic slumps.
In the face of accusations he was slow to impose lockdowns, Johnson and his ministers have admitted there are lessons to be learned from the crisis, but point to the United Kingdom's swift vaccine rollout as evidence that there were also successes.
"This process will place the state's actions under the microscope," Johnson told parliament on Wednesday in announcing the timing of the investigation. "Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible and to learn every lesson for the future."
Johnson, who had earlier resisted calls to begin an inquiry while the government was still handling the crisis, said it would start in spring 2022 once some of the worst pressures had subsided, warning of the risk infections could surge again.
He did not say when it would issue its final report, which could define his political legacy and influence voters ahead of a national election currently due some time before 2024.
It will delve into the decision-making at the heart of the British state when ministers mulled the imposition of unprecedented peacetime restrictions and scrambled to buy billions of pounds worth of drugs and equipment.
The UK's official death toll is 127,629 - Europe's worst figure and the world's fifth worst, after the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The pandemic caused Britain's economy to shrink by 9.8% in 2020, the sharpest decline among the Group of Seven - the West's richest nations, according to Refinitiv data.
The initial outbreak spread fast due to what critics say were unnecessary delays in locking the country down in March 2020 and infections hit the heart of government, with Johnson himself hospitalised.
Johnson has also been criticised for overseeing mistakes in transferring vulnerable patients into care homes and for building a costly test and trace system that failed to stop a deadly second wave.
Polling data shows public perception of the government's handling of the pandemic has been improved by a COVID-19 vaccination programme which has run ahead of international peers.
So far 35.6 million people in the United Kingdom, more than two thirds of the adult population, have had a first dose.
Johnson said the country deserved answers within a reasonable timeframe and the inquiry must be "free to scrutinise every document, to hear from all the key players." He did not set out its terms of reference, or say who would lead it.
Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer asked why the inquiry could not begin sooner and said it was vital the exercise had the backing of all political parties in parliament and commanded the trust of families of victims of the pandemic.
"What we need is an inquiry which has the full support of everybody, so that its conclusions will bear real authority," Starmer said.
Former Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair has to some degree had his reputation defined by a highly critical inquiry into Britain's participation in the Iraq war.
That report was commissioned in 2009 and published in 2016. It followed two other inquiries which were widely condemned in the media as being a whitewash.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Michael Holden, Elizabeth Piper and William James, writing by William James; Editing by William Schomberg/Guy Faulconbridge and Philippa Fletcher)