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Sceen grab from UK Covid-19 Inquiry live stream of former prime minister Boris Johnson gives evidence PA
covid inquiry

Boris Johnson admits ‘underestimating’ threat of Covid in early days of pandemic

Four people were removed from the Covid-19 inquiry as Boris Johnson began his evidence with an apology to victims of the pandemic.

LAST UPDATE | 6 Dec 2023

BORIS JOHNSON HAS admitted his government “underestimated” the threat posed by the coronavirus in the early days of the pandemic, as he apologised to the victims at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

The former British prime minister said that at the start of 2020, coronavirus “wasn’t really escalated to me as an issue of national concern” as the data emerging from China was misunderstood.

He rejected suggestions he had shown poor leadership by oscillating over whether or back tough restrictions.

Former aides have blamed Johnson’s tendency to veer on key decisions in March 2020 for delaying the response.

But he argued it was his job to “test” the “completely novel policy”, adding: “It matters to the livelihoods of people up and down the land. I had to go through the arguments and that is what I was doing.”

The former Tory leader defended his eventual decision to order England’s first lockdown on 23 March 2020, saying by the middle of that month he was giving arguments against restrictions “pretty short shrift”.

“I no longer had the luxury of waiting. It was over,” he said.

He said “once the penny dropped” that scientists had been wrong about how rampant Covid already was in the UK “it was pretty fast from flash to bang” in imposing lockdown.

Johnson did not deny questioning why his government was “destroying everything for people who will die anyway soon”, but suggested the comment was not “designed to be publicly broadcast”.

“It’s an indication of the cruelty of the choice that we faced and the appalling balancing act that I had to do throughout the pandemic,” he said when asked about a note written by his former aide Imran Shafi which recorded that he had made the remark.

Challenged over the slow response to the unfolding crisis, Johnson said ministers should have “twigged much sooner” the need for action, adding that it was only when he saw the “horrors” of the outbreak in Italy in February that year that he realised its seriousness.

Johnson suggested the experience of previous diseases such as Sars, Mers and swine flu clouded officials’ judgment while a coronavirus pandemic was “outside our living experience”.

“When you read that an Asiatic pandemic is about to sweep the world, you think you’ve heard it before. And that was the problem.

“But I think it’d be fair to say that the scientific community within Whitehall at that stage was not telling us that – I was not being informed that – this was something that was going to require urgent and immediate action.

“We underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge.”

The ex-premier said his government “might have operated differently” if it had believed some of the early forecasts that were being made about Covid-19, but was unable “to comprehend the implications”.

“I don’t think we attached enough credence to those forecasts, and because of the experience that we’d had with other zoonotic diseases, I think collectively in Whitehall there was not a sufficient loud enough klaxon of alarm.”

Johnson appeared to become emotional as he discussed his “anxiety” about possible behavioural fatigue if he imposed a lockdown too early without a vaccination programme.

He looked on the verge of tears as he described 2020 as a “tragic, tragic” year.

Johnson denied taking a “long” holiday in February 2020, after coming under fire for taking a half-term break at his Chevening country retreat when the virus had exploded in Italy and there were cases in the UK.

He insisted he was “working throughout the period” after it previously emerged there was a 10-day period in which no notes on coronavirus were sent to Johnson nor emergency Cobra meetings held.

Johnson conceded that, with hindsight, mass gatherings should have been stopped earlier and he should not have shaken hands with patients at a hospital where there were coronavirus cases.

boris protestor Protesters outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London Jordan Pettitt / PA Jordan Pettitt / PA / PA

His highly anticipated appearance before the inquiry was hit by protests as he began by issuing an apology to victims of the pandemic, with four demonstrators removed from the hearing room.

“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.

He went on to acknowledge that his government made “mistakes” and takes “personal responsibility for all the decisions that we made”.

Among those decisions were the speed of the government’s response to the pandemic in 2020, the lockdown decisions and their timeliness, the explosion of the virus in the residential care sector, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and the decision not to introduce a circuit-breaker later in 2020.

Johnson said: “With hindsight, it may be easy to see things that we could have done differently or it may be possible to see things that we could have done differently.

“At the time, I felt and I know that everybody else felt that we were doing our best in very difficult circumstances to protect life and protect the NHS.”

He claimed he was “not sure” whether government decision-making had led to “materially” a larger number of excess deaths as a result of the pandemic.

Pressed repeatedly on why the UK had such a high rate of excess deaths – the second-worst in Europe after Italy – he cited “headwinds” including an “extremely elderly population” with many health issues and being a “very densely populated country”, which “did not help”.

Johnson defended keeping former health secretary Matt Hancock in his post, despite calls from his aide Dominic Cummings that he should have been sacked.

He said Hancock “may have had defects” but “I thought that he was doing his best in very difficult circumstances and I thought he was a good communicator”.

Mr Johnson also dismissed expletive-laden WhatsApp messages exchanged between senior aides as the result of “highly talented” people being “very frazzled” by tackling the pandemic and reflecting “the agony” of the country.

While denying suggestions of a toxic culture, the former prime minister admitted his top team was too “male-dominated” and the gender balance “should have been better”.

Bereaved families protesting outside the inquiry’s west London venue said they did not accept Johnson’s apology.

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