Boris Johnson has insisted he was not properly warned about the potential seriousness of Covid during early 2020, as he dismissed abusive messages sent between his staff as the inevitable passion of people who were “doing their best”.
In a sometimes combative start to his evidence before the Covid inquiry in London, which began with protesters being removed from the hearing room, Johnson apologised for mistakes made, but then argued that these were not necessarily errors that could have been avoided.
Asked why he had not acted more urgently in January and early February 2020 amid warnings that Covid was spreading fast and could infect and kill large numbers of people, Johnson portrayed himself as at the mercy of a government-wide mindset of understandable complacency, given that earlier viruses such as Sars and Mers had not led to this.
“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,” the former prime minister told the inquiry.
“I was not being informed that this was something that would require urgent and immediate action.”
He similarly rejected the idea that he had “taken his eye off the ball” later in February, when he spent most of the half-term holiday at the prime minister’s Chevening country retreat, with cases rising fast. “There were clearly things we could and should have done if we had known and understood how fast it was spreading. But we didn’t,” he said.
Johnson continued to argue this despite being shown evidence of greater alarm by some in government at this time, including a WhatsApp message from Dominic Cummings on 6 February in which his chief adviser told a group including the prime minister that he had been briefed that the virus was “probably out of control now and will sweep world”.
Asked by Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry counsel, why he had left Matt Hancock, the then-health secretary, to chair the first five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on Covid, Johnson said the virus was then “not something that had really broken upon the political world”, adding that it had not by then been raised by anyone at prime minister’s questions.
He said: “I think it would certainly be fair to say of me, the entire Whitehall establishment, scientific community included, our advisers included, that we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge.”
Johnson added: “We should collectively have twigged much sooner. I should have twigged.”
However, by 23 March, when the lockdown was imposed, there was no other option, Johnson said. “We’d run out of wiggle room,” he said. “I no longer had the luxury of waiting. It was over.”
Asked if he had considered then the idea of avoiding a lockdown at all, he replied: “I did – I’m afraid to say at that stage I gave it pretty short shrift as I thought my obligation was to protect human life, and that was the number one duty of government.”
The inquiry also heard confirmation that it had been impossible to retrieve about 5,000 WhatsApp messages from Johnson’s old phone, covering the key period from January to June 2020, possibly caused by the device undergoing a factory reset.
Johnson began the first of two days of testimony by saying he was sorry “for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the Covid victims” – an apology that was interrupted as Heather Hallett, the inquiry chair, ordered four protesters to leave the room for holding up a sign reading “The dead can’t hear your apologies”.
However, under close questioning from Keith, while Johnson said he took ultimate responsibility for all the biggest decisions of the pandemic, he declined to say that his apology meant avoidable errors had occurred.
Keith went on to ask Johnson if by accepting errors he meant avoidable mistakes had happened, or just that with hindsight, some things could have been done differently. The former prime minister replied: “I can’t give you the answer to that question. I’m not sure.”
During lengthy questioning about WhatsApp messages shown earlier to the inquiry showing a sometimes abusive and misogynistic tone, as well as occasional despair and horror at Johnson’s leadership and the wider culture of No 10, Johnson strongly pushed back at the idea it meant his government was dysfunctional.
Instead, he argued, such conflict could be “a good and a healthy thing” and would have happened in other governments, for example those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
“I think that actually what you’re looking at, in all this stuff, is a lot of highly talented, highly motivated people who are stricken with anxiety about what is happening about the pandemic, who are doing their best and who, like all human beings, under great stress and great anxiety about themselves and their own performance, will be inclined to be critical of others,” he said.
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