Boris Johnson admits mistakes at Covid inquiry but insists government did 'level best'

Former UK PM interrupted as he apologised to victims' families during official inquiry into pandemic response

Boris Johnson addresses the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in London. AFP
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Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson apologised for mistakes made during his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic but insisted he did his '"level best” while in charge.

Mr Johnson said he was “deeply sorry for the pain, loss and suffering” of those who lost loved ones as he appeared at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in west London on Wednesday.

But his apology was interrupted by four people who were removed from the hearing room after they held up signs reading: “The dead can’t hear your apologies.”

“I do hope this inquiry will get the answers to the difficult questions,” Mr Johnson said in his opening remarks.

Britain recorded an estimated 230,000 deaths due to Covid after the outbreak in early 2020.

Mr Johnson told the inquiry that there were unquestionably things he would have done differently while in charge of the pandemic response but insisted “we did our level best” in “very difficult” circumstances.

He went on to acknowledge that his government made errors, saying: “So many people suffered, so many people lost their lives.

“Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes.”

Among the decisions he takes responsibility for are 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, he confirmed.

Mr Johnson also said: “I take personal responsibility for all the decisions that we made.”

He also suggested his government did not fully believe some of the forecasts that were being made in the early stages of the pandemic, saying “we have to put our hands up” and acknowledge they were 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 sufficiently loud enough klaxon of alarm.”

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”.

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

The only easy decision during the pandemic was to distribute vaccines, Mr Johnson said.

The former prime minister 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 to be on the verge of tears as he described 2020 as a “tragic, tragic” year.

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

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

He was also grilled on what previous witnesses to the inquiry have described as a toxic atmosphere in Downing Street and the influence of Mr Cummings, his chief adviser at the time.

The former British leader said people were “very frazzled” when confronted with expletive-laden WhatsApp exchanges involving Mr Cummings.

The tone of the private messages was a “reflection of the agony” the country was going through, he said.

Mr Johnson said his No 10 was made up of “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”.

Me Johnson said he was “not sure” whether his government's decisions had caused excess deaths. He said that deciding when to impose lockdowns and other restrictions had been “painful.”

He also denied deleting WhatsApp messages after it emerged he had not been able to provide the inquiry with any communications from February to June 2020.

Asked what his approach had been to the disclosure of his own Covid-related emails, WhatsApps and notes, Mr Johnson said: “I’ve done my best to give everything of any conceivable relevance.”

Inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC said a technical report provided by Mr Johnson’s solicitors suggested there may have been a factory reset at the end of January 2020 followed by an attempt to reinstate the contents in June 2020, but the former prime minister denied knowledge of that.

“I don’t remember any such thing,” he said.

Before Mr Johnson’s evidence began, Lady Hallett complained about the briefings to the press, saying that leaks of the witness statement undermined the process.

She said: “Failing to respect confidentiality undermines the inquiry’s ability to do its job fairly, effectively and independently.”

Updated: December 07, 2023, 8:15 AM