Boris Johnson 'sorry' for 'pain, loss and suffering' of Covid victims

The former prime minister is being grilled on his early handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears before the Covid-19 Inquiry to defend his government’s decision-making during the Coronavirus pandemic

Boris Johnson has expressed “how sorry” he is for the “pain and loss and the suffering” of all coronavirus victims, while admitting his government “inevitably” made mistakes.

Beginning two-days of evidence at the Covid-19 Inquiry, the former prime minister insisted he did his “level best” when responding to the virus, and takes personal responsibility for every decision that was made.

He admitted that in January 2020, the “Whitehall mind” wasn’t awake to the “utter disaster that Covid was to become and there wasn’t a “loud enough claxon of alarm” to the seriousness of the virus.

Over the next 48 hours, Johnson, whose premiership in Number 10 was defined by the pandemic, will face claims he was slow to impose national lockdowns, was “bamboozled” by the science and wanted to “let the bodies pile high”.

The key moments so far

  • Chair of the Inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallet, said media leaks ahead of Boris Johnson’s appearance undermined its effectiveness
  • Boris Johnson’s opening apology was interrupted, leading to four people being removed from the Inquiry gallery
  • The former PM admitted his government ‘inevitably’ made ‘mistakes’, and said he takes full personal responsibility for every decision that was made
  • On the 5,000 WhatsApps on his phone unavailable to the Inquiry (From January 30, 2020, to June 2020), Johnson said: ‘I don’t know the exact reason’
  • He only looked at SAGE meeting notes ‘once or twice’, relying on advise from advisers
  • He denied claims that sweary WhatsApps sent between officials in Number 10, and claims of a toxic atmosphere, hampered decision-making
  • Instead, he described a team of ‘highly talented’ people who were ‘stricken with anxiety’
  • In early 2020, Whitehall wasn’t awake to the ‘the kind of utter disaster that Covid was to become’ and was working as if it was an ‘influenza pandemic’

Chair of the Inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallet, opened on Wednesday with a complaint about briefings to the media ahead of Johnson’s appearance, which she said undermine her forensic four-year investigation.

“Failing to respect confidentiality undermines the inquiry’s ability to do its job fairly, effectively and independently,” Mr Hallet said as she addressed the Inquiry.

Johnson’s appearance is the most hotly anticipated of the probe so far, and was met with a significant presence from protesters representing Covid victims on Wednesday morning.

The former prime minister was interrupted by individuals in the gallery as he delivered an apology in the opening minutes of his evidence session.

“Can I just say how glad I am to be at this inquiry and how sorry I am for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the Covid victims,” Johnson said before he was cut short.

After being escorted outside of the Inquiry in London, the four individuals who were removed held up a sign labelled: “The dead can’t hear your apology”.

Johnson is sitting for two days of evidence as part of the Inquiry’s second module, which is focusing on UK decision-making and political governance.

(left to right) Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and former PM Boris Johnson. / Credit: PA

Questioned by lead counsel to the Inquiry Hugo Keith KC, Boris Johnson acknowledged that his government “inevitably” made “mistakes” in its handling of the pandemic.

“So many people suffered, so many people lost their lives,” Johnson said.

“Inevitably in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes.”

He said “inevitably we got some things wrong” but “I think we were doing our best at the time, given what we knew, given the information I had available to me at the time, I think we did our level best”.

“Were there things that we should have done differently? Unquestionably.”

Boris Johnson admits his government ‘inevitably’ got ‘some things wrong’ in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic

Leading up to his appearance on Wednesday, the former prime minister has been the subject of several explosive claims, not least that he oversaw a “toxic” culture in Downing Street that hampered his government’s ability to respond to the worsening pandemic.

Former officials, including Helen MacNamara and Lord Mark Sedwill, have both identified the pandemic culture in Number 10 as “feral” and “toxic”.

Defending the accusation, Johnson said on Wednesday: “I think that actually what you’re looking at, in all this stuff, is a lot of highly talented, highly motivated people who are stricken with anxiety about what is happening about the pandemic, who are doing their best and who, like all human beings, under great stress and great anxiety about themselves and their own performance, will be inclined to be critical of others.”

He added that it would be the “same” in any other administration, making reference to Margaret Thatcher’s administration.

In July 2020 Simon Case, the then-head official in Downing Street and now the Cabinet Secretary, said “I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country”, in a message to Sir Mark, who was cabinet secretary at the time.

But Johnson said similar “pretty fruity” things would have been said about about the Thatcher administration if “unexpurgated” messages had been available in the same way.

Johnson went onto deny any knowledge of particularly expletive WhatsApp messages between Number 10 officials, especially in response to allegations that the language used represented a system unable to respond to the virus.

He was later presented with messages he sent to his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in May 2020, in which he described former Health Secretary Mat Hancock as being “unfit” for the job.

“Hancock is unfit for this job. The incompetence, the constant lies, the obsession with media b******t”, he told Cummings.

He added: “Still no f****ing serious testing in care homes”.

On the documented criticism of Hancock, Johnson said: “The country as a whole had notable achievements during the crisis. My job was to try to get a load of quite disparate, quite challenging characters to keep going and through a long period and to keep doing their level best to protect the country. That was my job.”

ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks previews the key questions that Boris Johnson is likely to be asked during his appearance before the Covid-19 inquiry

According to previous witnesses to the Inquiry, Johnson was often “bamboozled” by the science, didn’t think Covid was “a big deal”, and believed Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

Johnson’s aide during the pandemic, Lord Edward Lister, said his boss “would rather let the bodies pile high than impose another lockdown” – a phrase Johnson denies using.

Meanwhile, extracts from the diaries of former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, also shown to the Inquiry, suggest that Johnson wanted to let Covid “rip”.

It is likely that Johnson, as part of his evidence, will point to his pandemic successes – especially the rollout of the vaccine and ending the third lockdown when he did.

Also likely to come up at the Inquiry is the former prime minister’s style of governing.

It has been fiercely criticised by witnesses before the Inquiry, not least by Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who claimed Johnson asked scientists whether the virus could be destroyed by blowing a “special hair dryer” up the nose.

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