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Former British prime minister Boris Johnson Alamy Stock Photo
covid inquiry

Boris Johnson suggested 'Covid was nature’s way of dealing with old people', UK inquiry hears

Former UK chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance hit out in his diaries about ‘quite a bonkers set of exchanges’ featuring the ex-prime minister.

BORIS JOHNSON SUGGESTED he believed the coronavirus pandemic was “nature’s way of dealing with old people” as he resisted lockdown measures, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser during Covid-19 has argued. 

Patrick Vallance wrote that the then-British prime minister suggested he may have agreed with Conservatives that the “whole thing is pathetic”.

Vallance hit out in his diaries about “quite a bonkers set of exchanges” featuring Johnson, extracts shown to the official UK Covid inquiry today showed.

The adviser wrote in August 2020 that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.

“Quite bonkers set of exchanges,” he said, referring to the “PM WhatsApp group”.

Then, in December 2020, Vallance wrote that Johnson said he believed he had been “acting early” and that the “public are with him (but his party is not)”.

“He says his party ‘thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them. A lot of moderate people think it is a bit too much’. Wants to rely on polling. Then he says ‘We should move things to Tier 3 now’.”

‘Political DNA’

Lee Cain, who was Johnson’s communications director in No 10, said the then-Prime Minister was indecisive over whether or not to impose a circuit-breaker lockdown in September 2020 because it was “very much against what’s in his political DNA”.

Cain said his own research led him to believe that the public mood was more cautious, contrary to that of the Tory Party.

Counsel to the inquiry Andrew O’Connor asked: “And was this one of the factors that underpinned the prime minister’s indecision later in 2020, September/October time, whether or not to have a circuit-breaker lockdown?”

london-england-uk-31st-oct-2023-former-director-of-communications-in-10-downing-street-lee-cain-leaves-covid-19-public-inquiry-hearing-after-giving-evidence-credit-image-tayfun-salcizu Lee Cain leaving the Covid-19 inquiry hearing after giving evidence Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Cain said: “Yes, it was. I think the prime minister was torn on this issue.

“I think, if he was in his previous role as a journalist, he would probably have been writing articles saying we should open up the beaches and how we should get ahead and be getting back.

“I think he felt torn where the evidence on one side and public opinion and scientific evidence was very much caution, slow – we’re almost certainly going to have to do another suppression measure, so we need to have that in mind – where media opinion and certainly the rump of the Tory Party was pushing him hard (in) the other direction.

“So I think that was partly the reason for the oscillation because the rigid measures were very much against what’s in his political DNA, I guess.”


Cain also said that Johnson’s erratic decision-making was “rather exhausting”.

Messages between Cain and Dominic Cummings, who served as the then-prime minister’s chief adviser, showed them venting their frustrations on WhatsApp.

“Get in here he’s melting down,” Cummings wrote on 19 March 2020, days before the first lockdown, adding that Mr Johnson was “back to Jaws mode wank”.

“I’ve literally said same thing 10 f****** times and he still won’t absorb it,” he added.

Explaining the Jaws reference, Cain told the inquiry that Johnson would refer to the mayor from the Jaws film “who wanted to keep the beaches open”.

“I think he had a routine from previous in his career where he would use that as a joke from one of his after-dinner speeches,” he said.

“The mayor was right all along to keep the beaches open because it would have been a long-term harm to the community – so it’s a sort of sub-reference to that.”

A message from Cummings sent on 3 March 2020 said that Johnson did not believe Covid was a “big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done”.

He wrote to Cain that “his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking (the) economy into a slump”.

20 days later, on 23 March, Johnson ordered the UK into lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Cain’s written evidence showed that Johnson and others agreed in a meeting on 14 March that year that a full lockdown was the only way to save the NHS from collapse.

Asked if that was a longer than desired wait until the lockdown was announced, he said: “Yes, but I think you also have to consider it’s quite a big undertaking to lock down the entire country.”

Back in his written evidence, Cain said one challenge was that Johnson would “occasionally oscillate between lockdown and other potential policy options”.

“The system works at its best when there is clear direction from No 10 and the prime minister, and these moments of indecision significantly impacted the pace and clarity of decision-making across Government,” Cain’s statement said.

Cain conceded that the UK government got the assessment of the virus “wrong” before it arrived in the country in early 2020.

Yesterday, the inquiry heard that Johnson had, according to a note read from the diary of a former private secretary, asked why the economy was being destroyed “for people who will die anyway soon”, in the days before the country went into lockdown.

The diary note from Imran Shafi, which he attributed to Johnson, stated: “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.”

Press Association