Boris Johnson 'asked why we're destroying the economy for people who will die anyway', Covid Inquiry hears

30 October 2023, 16:51 | Updated: 31 October 2023, 00:48

Boris Johnson 'asked why we're destroying the economy for people who will die anyway', Covid inquiry hears
Boris Johnson 'asked why we're destroying the economy for people who will die anyway', Covid inquiry hears. Picture: Alamy/Covid inquiry

By Emma Soteriou

Boris Johnson allegedly asked why we are destroying the economy for people who will die anyway, the Covid inquiry has heard.

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Notes from the former private secretary to the PM for public services, Imran Shafi, showed Mr Johnson's opinion on locking down the country in March.

Minutes from a meeting revealed someone said: "Why are we destroying everything for people who will anyway die soon?"

Asked by inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC who said the words, Mr Shafi replied: "I can't say for sure, I think it was the former prime minister."

He had previously said that Mr Johnson was not wanting to lock down because of potential negative effects on the economy, people's mental health and other factors.

The term "bed blockers" was also used, something Mr Keith said appeared to refer to people in hospital, the elderly, the infirm or the ill.

Mr Shafi said: "I think that was a term that was also widely used in DHSC (Department of Health and Social Care) and the NHS of people who didn't need to be in hospital."

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It comes after the inquiry heard that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case sent a message to Dominic Cummings saying Boris Johnson "cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach", the Covid inquiry heard.

He also said the former PM was "mad" if he did not believe his private WhatsApp messages would eventually become public as part of the inquiry.

The comments were made in WhatsApp messages between the Cabinet Secretary and then-principal private secretary Martin Reynolds, who appeared before Baroness Heather Hallett's probe.

In the messages, read by counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC, Mr Case said: "I am at the end of my tether.

"He changes strategic direction every day (Monday we were all about fear of virus returning as per Europe, March etc - today we're in 'let it rip' mode cos (sic) the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower etc.)

"He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach.

"The team captain cannot change the call on the big plays every day. The team can't deliver anything under these circumstances.

"A weak team (as we have got - Hancock, Williamson, Dido, No10/CO, Perm Secs), definitely cannot succeed in these circs (sic). IT HAS TO STOP!

"Decide and set direction - deliver - explain. Gov't isn't actually that hard but this guy is really making it impossible."

It comes after Mr Reynolds - one of Mr Johnson's' key aides - said he used "disappearing" WhatsApp messages in a group of senior officials because he "may" have been worried about information being leaked.

He said he could not remember exactly why he turned the feature on - but that it could have been because he was worried about stories being leaked to the press.

He insisted it was not an attempt to hide information from the inquiry.

“I don’t believe it was intended to prevent the inquiry from having sight of [the messages],” he said.

Martin Reynolds gives evidence to UK Covid-19 inquiry

Giving evidence at the Covid inquiry, Mr Reynolds was asked about a WhatsApp group named PM Updates, which was used to exchange official information between the PM and senior civil servants.

On April 15 2021, Mr Reynolds turned on the disappearing messages function which means messages vanish seven days after they were sent.

He said most of the messages would have been duplicated in official emails anyway.

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Martin Reynolds said he 'may' have turned on the disappearing messages because he was worried about leaks
Martin Reynolds said he 'may' have turned on the disappearing messages because he was worried about leaks. Picture: Alamy

Mr Reynolds faced questions about WhatsApp messaging at the top of government during the pandemic.

In correspondence shared with the inquiry from December 2021, Mr Case said: "PM is mad if he doesn't think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid inquiry - but he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight! We'll have that battle in the new year".

Mr Reynolds responded: "Agreed - thanks for your help."

Before giving evidence, he began by apologising "unreservedly" to "all the families of all those who suffered" for the bash which earnt him his 'Party Marty' nickname.

An email on behalf of Mr Reynolds was sent inviting around 200 staff to enjoy the "lovely weather" with some "socially distanced drinks in the garden this evening".

"Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!" the email said.

But he suggested that he did not believe it had a major impact on the public during the pandemic, given details of the event emerged in the media much later.

He said: “I would first like to say how deeply sorry I am for my part in those events and for the email message which went out that day.

“And I would like to apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused.”

He added: “It actually broke into the news about 15 months later.

“So while I totally accept, I was totally wrong in the way I sent the email around and for the event, I think the impact on public confidence, although obviously now in terms of public confidence, more generally it did have a serious impact, in terms of the pandemic at that time it was less, it had less impact.”

A range of senior officials, including Mr Johnson's former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, will appear before Lady Hallet's inquiry this week.

Ex-No10 director of communications Lee Cain is also giving evidence as well as former private secretary to the PM for public services Imran Shafi.

The inquiry's module two hearings are considering core UK decision-making and political governance.

Lady Hallett, beginning Monday's proceedings, said she wanted to address reports "suggesting that materials confidential to the inquiry and the core participants have been shared with the media".

She said: "I wish to remind all those involved in the inquiry as core participants and witnesses of the need to maintain the confidentiality of the materials with which they have been provided unless and until they are used in the inquiry proceedings".