Boris Johnson saw Covid as nature's way of dealing with old people, inquiry hears

Covid was the wrong crisis for ex-prime minister's skill set, former government adviser says

Protesters gather outside the Covid hearing. Many of them lost loved ones during the pandemic. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Covid-19 was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”, senior British leaders including then-prime minster Boris Johnson suggested during the early weeks of the pandemic, an inquiry was told on Tuesday.

Mr Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.

The views, first aired in diaries written by Sir Patrick Vallance, were entered as evidence in the UK’s Covid Inquiry, as two key staff members – Dominic Cumming and Lee Cain – gave testimony.

Mr Vallance, then the UK’s chief scientific officer, criticised a “bonkers set of exchanges” with Mr Johnson, according to the diary extracts which were shown to Mr Cain.

Mr Cain and Mr Cummings gave evidence at the official inquiry, which is aiming for lessons to be learnt from Britain's response to the pandemic.

Mr Cummings, a former chief adviser to Mr Johnson, was forced out after breaking lockdown rules. Mr Cain left government a day before Mr Cummings.

A screengrab of a WhatsApp exchange between Mr Cain, former director of communications at No 10 Downing Street, and Mr Johnson was shown.

In it, the prime minister questions his own government's policy and some of the data on Covid deaths. “I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff,” he wrote. “I think we may need to recalibrate”.

Entries from the diaries of Sir Patrick, then the chief scientific adviser, were also shown to the inquiry, expressing concerns that Mr Johnson could neglect the elderly population.

In the first, Mr Vallance says Boris Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.

A second entry read: “Chief whip says 'I think we should let the old people get it and protect others’. PM says ‘a lot of my backbenchers think that and I must say I agree with them’.”

Mr Cain said he remembered Mr Johnson was concerned about society as a whole but some of the language was not “what I would have used”.

'The wrong crisis for Johnson'

WhatsApp messages from Mr Cummings criticising Mr Johnson were also shown to the inquiry as Mr Cain gave evidence.

Mr Cummings wrote: “He doesn't think it's a big deal and he doesn't think anything can be done and 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.”

Twenty days later, Mr Johnson ordered the UK into lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Other messages from Mr Cummings talked about the former prime minister going “back to Jaws mode”, a reference to the economy suffering from anti-Covid measures.

Mr Cummings wrote: “What did I say – it's only a matter of time before his babbling exposes the fact he doesn't know what to say.”

Asked on Tuesday if the messages were “just banter”, Mr Cain said: “He [Mr Johnson] can be quite a challenging character to work with – just because he will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room.

“I think what will probably be clear in Covid, it was the wrong crisis for this prime minister's skill set.”

When asked about the Covid action plan formulated by the government, he said: “Anyone who reads the document will see that it's not a plan to deal with Covid.”

“I think the prime minister was not alone in not doing as much as we should by early March, given the scale and evidence,” Mr Cain told the inquiry.

Mr Cummings criticised much of the government as the Covid-19 “nightmare” swept through Britain.

He described the Cabinet Office as a “bomb site” and a “dumpster fire” and argued an “overall dysfunctional system” was in place during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The effect on vulnerable groups, including ethnic minorities and domestic abuse victims, were “entirely appallingly neglected by the entire planning system”, Mr Cummings said.

He said “one of the most appalling things” was the lack of a shielding plan in March 2020.

Away from the inquiry, Brenda Doherty, whose mother died aged 82 in March 2020 after contracting Covid-19 in hospital, said the comments made by Mr Johnson about older people in the pandemic was like being “punched in the stomach”.

Speaking as part of the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign group, she accused the former prime minister of having had a “callous and brutal attitude”.

She said: “I feel like I've been punched in the stomach after reading Boris Johnson's messages this morning. They are psychotic.”

Mr Cummings was a key figure during the government's early response to the pandemic but was asked to leave his post after it emerged he had made a lockdown-breaking trip to County Durham with his family.

Updated: October 31, 2023, 6:32 PM