Grenfell bereaved say Covid ban on attending inquiry is ‘madness’

Survivors and bereaved of the Grenfell Tower fire have branded as “madness” rules that mean although they can eat at a restaurant or drink in a pub, they are still not allowed to attend the public inquiry, which restarts on Monday.

The builders of the disastrous refurbishment will continue giving evidence in front of an empty inquiry room in Paddington this week, followed by building safety officials from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and, next month, executives at the council’s housing arm, which acted as landlord.

But the community will still be prohibited from attending because of a lockout in place since the inquiry restarted in July following a pause during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. A live YouTube broadcast of witnesses being cross-examined in front of the chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, and his fellow panellist Thouria Istephan, an architect and health and safety expert, is being made available.

The inquiry has said it is “planning for bereaved, survivor and resident attendance as soon as it is possible” and is considering a ballot system allowing in 10 members of the community at a time.

But it told the more than 600 core participants: “The resumption of hearings in September is not the right time to relax arrangements and compromise the 2-metre distancing standard.”

Mark Fisher, the inquiry’s director general, told participants in a letter: “The inquiry continues to take health and safety guidance extremely seriously and whilst we are keen to enable more numbers within the venue, we must remain cognisant of the evolving public health position. As soon as we are able to increase the number of people who can attend hearings, BSR [bereaved, survivors and residents] attendance will be the panel’s main concern and they will be prioritised above all other parties.”

The position has frustrated survivors and bereaved. “I walk into Nando’s and everyone is casual, people are squashed on to beaches, I can go into a pub and have a pint without a mask, but I can’t come into the public inquiry,” said Karim Mussilhy, whose uncle Hesham Rahman died in the fire.

He said it was important for the grieving process and to be able to achieve closure for the bereaved and survivors to be able to look witnesses in the face, “see their facial expressions and what emotions they are bringing to the table and to see if you can catch their eye and project some of the pain and emotion”.

He said: “This may be the only way we get to see these people. We may never get the chance again.”

The inquiry said it worked with the Government Property Agency (GPA) “to ensure our premises are as safe as they can be for those who need to attend. This includes taking account of the required physical attendance of individuals who are in more vulnerable groups.”

The GPA approves the limit on the numbers of people allowed in each room in the venue, and these limits would not currently allow for extra attendees.

The restrictions are adding to tensions between the Grenfell community and the government. Last month Grenfell United, the survivors group, refused an invitation to meet the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, citing his involvement with the property developer Richard Desmond over the Westferry housing development, as well as what they claim is a lack of progress on social housing reform and slow progress enforcing the findings of the first phase of the inquiry.

They told him in a letter: “Your perceived focus on the interests of property developers over the needs of an impoverished local community has soured our opinion of you. It tells us you have learned nothing from your previous interactions and conversations with Grenfell United committee members who lost so much on the night of the fire. Bereaved families and survivors sat with you and opened their hearts, and your actions have thrown this trust back in our faces.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been contacted for a response.

Participants are also frustrated Downing Street has not appointed an inquiry panellist with expertise in community matters, as it promised to do in January. The engineer Benita Mehra was forced to resign when the Guardian revealed she had links to the company that made the cladding blamed for accelerating the fatal fire.

“The search process for the new panel member has been under way since March,” said a Cabinet Office spokesman, who blamed Covid-19 for the delay. “The process is now at an advanced stage and the new panel member will be announced soon.”