Boris Johnson thought older people more vulnerable to coronavirus should accept “their fate” and let younger people “get on with life”, the UK Covid-19 inquiry has heard.
The former prime minister’s leadership during the pandemic and attitude toward the virus is taking a beating at the inquiry, with documents and communications from his most senior advisers revealing their frustrations.
Johnson had become “obsessed” with the idea that only people older than the UK’s average life expectancy were getting ill, the inquiry heard, leading him to message an adviser saying “catch Covid, live longer”.
This attitude was “bonkers”, former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance wrote in his notebook in August 2020.
“He is obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going,” the scientist wrote. “Quite bonkers set of exchanges.”
Sir Patrick also noted in a separate entry that Johnson’s party “thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just nature’s way of dealing with old people”, a position Johnson said he was “not entirely sure I disagree with them”.
Covid pandemic ‘wrong crisis’ for Boris Johnson, top adviser says
Lee Cain, who was Johnson’s director of communications through the start of the pandemic to November 2020, told the inquiry it had become clear coronavirus was the “wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset”.
He noted the ex-PM’s delay in taking decisions and tendency to “occasionally oscillate” had a negative impact.
“Indecision can sometimes be worse than the wrong decision in certain circumstances. And I think indecision probably was a theme of Covid that people did struggle with inside Number 10.”
But private messages between him and former chief adviser Dominic Cummings were much more explicit in their criticism of Johnson.
‘He’s back into jaws mode… this babbling will expose him’: Cummings and Cain don’t hold back in private WhatsApps about Johnson
Johnson’s two most senior advisers confided in each other about how exhausted they were working with him and one press conference performance did not fill them with confidence.
Criticising the PM’s display in a Number 10 news briefing described by a journalist as “slightly confusing”, Cummings wrote: “It’s only a matter of time before his babbling exposes fact he doesn’t know what to say.”
Earlier messages sent to Mr Cain on March 19 while Cummings was in a meeting with Johnson read: “Get in here he’s melting down.
“Rishi saying bond markets may fund our debt etc. He’s back to Jaws mode w***”
This was reference to Johnson’s belief the real hero of the Jaws movie was the mayor who kept the beaches open despite the shark risk.
The exchange went on: “I’ve literally said same thing 10 f****** times and he still won’t absorb it.
“I’m exhausted just talking to him and stopping the trolley.
“I’ve had to sit here for two hours just to stop him saying stupid s***.”
“I’m exhausted with him,” Mr Cain replied, adding he had “no words” to describe the PM’s press conference.
Boris Johnson was ‘challenging’ to work with and would take ‘decision from the last person in the room’
Mr Cain told the inquiry there was a “lack of leadership” and “chaos” in government under Johnson.
Describing the attitude in government before the first lockdown was announced, Mr Cain told the inquiry: “I don’t think there was any clarity of purpose, any really serious outline, plan to deal with Covid at that particular point.”
WhatsApps between Mr Cain and Cummings revealed their main frustration was at their boss’s lack of direction.
Asked if the messages between him and Cummings criticising Johnson were “just banter”, Mr Cain said: “I think anyone that’s worked with the prime minister for a period of time will become exhausted with him sometimes.
“He can be quite a challenging character to work with – just because he will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room.
“I think that’s pretty well documented in terms of his style of operating – in it is rather exhausting from time to time.”
‘He cannot lead and we cannot support him’: Frustration at Boris Johnson within his inner circle revealed at inquiry on Monday
The former prime minister’s already-damaged reputation is taking a beating at the inquiry this week, with WhatsApp messages shown on Monday revealing just how poorly his leadership was viewed by close members of his inner circle.
A WhatsApp group containing Mr Cain, Cummings, and cabinet secretary Simon Case showed their frustration at his frequent U-turns.
“He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach,” Mr Case said. “The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day.”
Cummings said he “totally agreed”, adding that Johnson was “careering around” and “creating chaos”.
Mr Case added: “This gov’t doesn’t have the credibility needed to be imposing stuff within only days of deciding not too (sic). We look like a terrible, tragic joke… I cannot cope with this.”
Meeting notes shown to the inquiry on Monday also revealed Johnson’s apparently flippant attitude toward vulnerable people during the pandemic.
He is said to have asked Rishi Sunak in a meeting in March 2020 why the economy was being destroyed “for people who will die anyway soon” in the days before lockdown.
A note from the diary of the former PM’s private secretary public services, Imran Shafi, read: “We’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large ppl (taken to mean large numbers of people) who will die – why are we destroying economy for people who will die anyway soon.”
When Mr Shafi was asked by inquiry counsel, Hugo Keith KC, who said those words, he replied: “I can’t say for sure, I think it was the former prime minister”.
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