LONDON - The chair of Britain's COVID-19 inquiry pledged to put the bereaved and those who suffered at the heart of her work as she began main hearings on Tuesday into how the coronavirus pandemic was handled.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson had ordered the inquiry to look into the United Kingdom's preparedness as well as the public health and economic response after Britain recorded one of the world's highest death tolls from COVID.

More than 175,000 deaths from the virus had been reported by the time Johnson stood down in July last year.

"I have promised many times that those who have suffered hardship and loss are and will always be at the heart of the inquiry," the chair, Heather Hallett, said at the start of the hearing. "I am listening to them. Their loss will be recognised."

Module one, which is looking into Britain's preparedness for the pandemic, opened on Tuesday.

The inquiry has held preliminary hearings, but this week will see the first evidence heard in the inquiry since it was formally launched in June 2022.

With a national election expected next year, the detailed examination of decision-making could create political headaches for current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister during the pandemic.

However, evidence hearings on module two, which covers governance and decision-making in the pandemic, are not due to start until later in the year.

The government has launched a legal challenge against the inquiry over its requests for internal government WhatsApp messages from Johnson's time in office which it says are "unambiguously irrelevant" to the inquiry.

The inquiry argues that it is for the chair to determine what material is relevant. The legal case will be heard about the end of June.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Editing by William Maclean)