The prime minister is accused of appearing to shunt the investigation – which he pledged would begin in “spring 2022” – to the bottom of his “to do list”, after dragging his heels on agreeing its scope.
No hearings will now be possible before the summer at the earliest, say groups who have studied previous inquiries, after hold-ups appointing a chair and agreeing crucial terms of reference.
There are fears of further delays with the government “in paralysis” because of the Partygate scandal, one source saying a promised consultation on draft terms is not expected imminently.
A former head of the Civil Service, Bob Kerslake, has told The Independent he will demand answers from the government, saying: “I am concerned if the inquiry is going to be delayed.”
The Institute for Government warned it was now “very hard to see how the inquiry can begin until the end of May or June, based on previous inquiries such as Grenfell”.
The King’s Fund echoed the criticism, saying it is now “impossible for the inquiry to now start its work in earnest in the spring”.
“The public inquiry is too important to be shunted yet again to the bottom of the government’s to do list,” Sally Warren, the independent think-tank’s director of policy, told The Independent.
The fresh delay has angered the families of Covid victims, after Mr Johnson rejected repeated pleas to start the inquiry sooner – instead waiting until two years after the pandemic struck.
He has been accused of stalling in order to prevent likely damning conclusions coming out before a general election in spring 2024, with public inquiries typically taking two years, at least.
Lobby Akinnola, spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: “Once the inquiry is officially set up, it becomes an offence to tamper with or destroy evidence.
“But, until that happens there’s a risk of key evidence, being lost. After the attempts to cover up ‘Partygate’, that is especially worrying.”
Mr Johnson finally announced the inquiry last May, but failed to appoint a chair – the former Court of Appeal judge Heather Hallett – until just before Christmas.
He said draft terms of reference would be released “in the new year” but they have yet to be published – with only the devolved governments consulted by Baroness Hallett so far.
In the Grenfell Inquiry, it took two-and-a-half months between publication and hearings getting underway, but the Institute for Government (IfG) warned the Covid inquiry will be “far more complicated”.
The range of controversies is vast, including the timing of lockdown decisions, the scientific advice sought, testing and PPE, the discharge of infected patients into care homes, the initial decision not to close borders, and much more.
Many key decisions were devolved, which means a need to delve into the handling of the response in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – just as much as in Whitehall.
“Engaging the public and other parties in a consultation on those terms of reference is likely to be more complicated than the Grenfell consultation, because of the sheer scale of people and organisations who will want to be involved,” said Emma Norris, the IfG’s director of research.
“It was always clear that this would be a complex inquiry to set up, so it was important to begin in earnest as soon as possible – so the government should have started earlier.”
Mr Johnson defended his stalling on the grounds it would “weigh down” scientific advisers and take up “huge amounts of officials’ time” if the pandemic flared up again.
In the Commons last week, he appeared to pre-judge the inquiry, when he boasted to MPs: “We have the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and we have got all the big calls right.”
But an inquiry last year, by two Tory-led Commons committees, was damning, calling his response “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.
Delaying lockdown in March 2020 – as a “herd immunity” strategy was explored – and failing to protect elderly and vulnerable people in care caused thousands of avoidable deaths, it said.
Lord Kerslake, the head of the civil service under David Cameron, will now ask questions in the House of Lords, saying: “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of pace behind this.”
The Cabinet Office declined to discuss the reasons for the delay in publishing draft terms of reference, when panel members will be selected, or whether office space for the inquiry has been secured.
A spokesperson said: “As the prime minister has previously stated, the Covid inquiry is set to begin its work in spring 2022.”