Ten things we learned from Boris Johnson's second day at the Covid inquiry

7 December 2023, 18:45

Boris Johnson spoke at the Covid inquiry again on Thursday
Boris Johnson spoke at the Covid inquiry again on Thursday. Picture: Alamy/Covid inquiry

By Kit Heren

Boris Johnson appeared for the second time at the Covid inquiry on Thursday, discussing his government's response to the pandemic.

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The former Prime Minister, who was in Downing Street during Covid-19, became emotional as he discussed his own brush with the disease, which saw him hospitalised in intensive care.

Mr Johnson defended the government's management of the virus from criticism, including claiming that they worked hard to get Covid PPE and tests after a slow start.

He also said that he did discuss 'letting Covid rip' in summer 2020, but said that the language should not have been considered unusual at that time of the pandemic.

Read more: Boris Johnson tells Covid Inquiry he 'could not have done more' to stop Downing Street parties

Read more: Covid inquiry as it happened: Ex-PM Boris Johnson says he 'could not have done more' to stop lockdown-busting parties

Expert analysis of Boris Johnson's final day at the Covid Inquiry

Partygate coverage was 'a travesty of the truth'

Mr Johnson said the media coverage of the parties that took place in Downing Street during the pandemic gave the public an inaccurate impression.

Mr Johnson told the inquiry that "the version of events that has entered the popular consciousness about what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street is a million miles from the reality of what actually happened in Number 10."

The former Prime Minister said he was speaking on behalf of "hundreds and hundreds of hard working civil servants who thought that they were following the rules".

He told the inquiry that the "characterisation, the representation, has been of what civil servants and advisers were doing in Number 10 has been a travesty of the truth".

Mr Johnson was also asked why he had not done more to stop parties from taking place at Downing Street.

"I think that the trouble was, as I said, that people were working extremely hard in tough circumstances," he told the inquiry.

He was asked in response: "Could you have done more to stop it?"

Mr Johnson replied: "Given what I knew at the time about what was going on, the answer to that is no."

He then admitted he maybe could have told staff to be more "mindful of the rules and how things would appear".

Caller: 'We all love Boris Johnson'

Government 'moved heaven and earth' to get PPE and Covid tests

The government was criticised at the start of the pandemic for not providing enough Covid protective equipment and tests - but Mr Johnson said they 'reacted' quickly.

The former PM said: "I have explained that we didn't understand the scale and the pace of the of the virus's advance but, even if we had, I don't believe that it would have made that much difference in January because the stocks were not great around the world.

"And if you remember what happened, we had a terrible situation in March when there were struggles virtually at airports over consignments of PPE."

The former prime minister said that early on he was told that "we did have a very good test and trace system and ample preparations but that turned out not to be true", adding: "The UK's diagnostics industry was not as well developed when the pandemic began as others.

"And that was because I was being told in those early weeks that we were well covered - that turned out not to be true. We reacted.

"We then set up one of the biggest testing industries in Europe, and I want to thank Dido Harding very much for everything she did. I also want to thank Paul Deighton for what he did on securing PPE."

Boris Johnson leaves the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Thursday
Boris Johnson leaves the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Thursday. Picture: Getty

Mr Johnson 'did care about suffering'

Mr Johnson maintained that he did care about people's suffering during the pandemic, despite suggestions he was indifferent.

The former PM said that the inquiry has "dwelt particularly on WhatsApp exchanges and various things I'm supposed to have said which indicate that I didn't care".

Mr Johnson added emotionally: "I did care and I continue to get passionate about it, and I haven't talked about this before in public.

"It goes to what you were saying earlier about elderly people and what you claim is my indifference to the pandemic.

"When I went into intensive care, I saw around me a lot of people who were not actually elderly. In fact, they were middle-aged men and they were quite like me - and some of us were going to make it and some of us weren't.

"What I'm trying to tell you in a nutshell - and the NHS, thank god, did an amazing job and helped me survive - but I knew from that experience what appalling a disease this is. I had absolutely no personal doubt about that, from March onwards.

"To say that I didn't care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right."

Protesters hold anti-Boris Johnson placards and pictures outside the inquiry
Protesters hold anti-Boris Johnson placards and pictures outside the inquiry. Picture: Alamy

Later lockdowns 'did not come not too late'

Mr Johnson insisted that the second and third Covid lockdowns did not come too late, despite claims from critics.

Inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC said: "Mr Johnson, what were the consequences of making decisions too late? When you said those words to your colleagues on the Covid-S meeting on the 21st of September, what did you have in mind by consequences and the decision-making having been too late?"

Mr Johnson replied: "Clearly if you make any decision too late then there's going to be a cost and in the case of Covid there's a cost in human life.

"What I wouldn't accept is that all the decisions in September, October, November (2020) were too late.

"Nor would I accept, knowing what we did then, that the decision in March (2020) was too late."

Hugo Keith KC
Hugo Keith KC. Picture: Alamy

Mr Johnson used 'blunt' language to 'make people comfortable'

Mr Johnson said he spoke in "layman's" terms to put people at their ease, amid debates that were often conducted in "learned or bureaucratic language".

Mr Johnson said: "First of all, I regret all hurt and offence caused by publication of language that was not intended for publication, whether it's been recorded by someone's notes or diaries, or whatever - these were private conversations with officials. Secondly, a lot of what has been reported is incorrect, and there are words that are described to me that I simply don't recognise.

"But the third thing is, insofar as it's obviously true, that I was from time to time speaking bluntly, and in an unpolished way about these issues, it was for two for two reasons. First of all, I wanted to represent the layman to get an answer that was intelligible.

"Number two, I wanted to everybody in the room to feel that they can also speak freely, because I think when you're sitting in a room full of conversations conducted in learned or bureaucratic language about these complex phenomena, you do need people to feel that they have the space without being embarrassed to say things simply, even if taken out of context they can be made to look unfeeling or uncaring, when people really aren't being unfeeling or uncaring.

"They're trying to express ideas as simply and as concisely as they can.

Lockdown tiers 'didn't work'

Mr Johnson agreed with inquiry counsel Mr Keith that lockdown tiers, introduced in late 2020, didn't work.

The former PM said: "They didn't and I'm very sad about that. But I think that they were logically, rationally as we came out of the restrictions in the summer (2020), they were worth a try.

"The trouble was that they became very invidious as between areas - because one village would suddenly find itself in very heavy restrictions, the village next door was (the lesser tier) 1, while the incidence of the virus was exactly the same.

"Local politicians of all kinds became very worked up, sometimes quite paranoid about the tiering approach.

"It clearly was proving divisive and difficult to implement."

Mr Johnson considered 'letting Covid rip'

Mr Johnson pushed for 'letting the virus rip in a meeting with chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, whose diary has been made available to the inquiry.

He said he was "actually having a discussion about letting it rip", which Mr Johnson says it is what he would be expected to discuss in June 2020, when the conversation took place.

Barnard Castle 'was a bad moment'

Mr Johnson's former chief adviser Dominic Cummings said he had driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight so he could drive back to London - despite the country being in lockdown. That sparked a huge media frenzy.

The former PM told the inquiry said that "it was a bad moment, I won't pretend otherwise".

Common sense may be better than regulation in a future pandemic

Lockdown rules changed dozens of times during the pandemic, and Mr Johnson said it might be better in a future pandemic to let the public use their common sense.

Mr Johnson said he had "a great deal of sympathy for the police, those who are charged with enforcing it, because it changed very often".

He added: "I think there were 60 separate changes, and the complexities for the public to understand were very grey".

Asked how it might be done differently in future, the former prime minister said it would be a matter for the inquiry, but suggested reflection is needed.

He said: "I think that there needs to be a great deal of reflection about simplifying the whole approach, and seeing what we can do to rely more on common sense and less on regulation and legislation.

"But there may be limits to that. I'm not suggesting there is an easy answer, because the reason fundamentally in the UK, and I say this to all the libertarians, why you need regulation is because ultimately people want to see everybody being obliged to obey the same set of rules and they want their neighbours to do what they are doing."

Mr Johnson called his government's masks policy 'f****** up'

The former Prime Minister criticised his own government's masking policy during the pandemic, it emerged.

He wrote: "I am on a train trying to make sense of our totally f***** up facemask policy."

When pressed by core participant Samuel Jacobs, who is representing Trades Union Congress (TUC), he said: "The adjective I use, which I won't repeat, was intended to convey my sense that a mask policy which had been in position, one, was going to have to change because of changing scientific advice and changing appreciation of the value of masks.

"That was the reality. It was going to be politically difficult to to execute, but we were going to have to do it."

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