Boris Johnson has continued to defend his handling of the pandemic on his second day of giving evidence to the Covid inquiry. He expressed surprise that scientists were not consulted about the “eat out to help out” scheme, sought to justify having said older people should “accept their fate”, and claimed that characterisations of the Partygate scandal were a “travesty of the truth”.
‘We should have thought about how No 10 parties would look,’ Johnson told colleagues
Johnson worried about the public perception of parties in Downing Street after the first stories broke about the scandal, messages shown to the inquiry revealed. In December 2021 the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, recused himself from a Partygate inquiry after it emerged that one of the parties was hosted in his office. In a message to Case, Johnson said: “I am really sorry this thing is now causing you any kind of grief at all. The whole business is insane. We will get through it and come out on top.”
In another message, he said: “In retrospect, we all should have told people – above all Lee Cain [director of communications] – to think about their behaviour in No 10 and how it would look. But now we must smash on.”
Hugo Keith KC, counsel to the inquiry, suggested that the note showed Johnson did not care about the rules. Johnson replied: “To say that I didn’t care about what was happening generally is the complete opposite of the truth.”
Johnson also said the public characterisation of parties in No 10 was “a million miles away from reality”.
At this point, the inquiry chair, Heather Hallett, intervened to say Partygate had worsened the grief of bereaved families. She said: “I’ve received a number of messages from bereaved people. So many of them suffered horrific grief during lockdown and I’m afraid Partygate has exacerbated their grief.”
Johnson said his near-death Covid experience gave him an insight into the suffering it caused
When he was accused of not caring, Johnson also cited his hospitalisation with Covid in April 2020. His voice breaking, he said: “I haven’t talked about this before, in public. What you claim is my indifference to the pandemic. I just want to remind you when I went into intensive care. I saw around me a lot of people who were not actually elderly. They were middle-aged men and they were quite like me. And some of us were going to make it and some of us weren’t.
“The NHS, thank God, did an amazing job and helped me survive. I knew from that experience what an appalling disease this is … To say that I didn’t care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right.”
Sweden urged the UK to take a cautious approach, despite a reputation for ‘letting it rip’
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist and a figure who became a hero to those advocating against lockdowns, actually argued for a more “precautionary approach” during a meeting in 2020, Johnson claimed.
The Zoom meeting was one that Johnson had called to discuss the government’s response to rising Covid-19 infections, and included government scientists as well as Tegnell and British scientists who were critical of lockdown measures.
“What I remember is a surprising degree of unanimity,” Johnson said, adding that it was interesting that scientists who had become associated with a “let it rip” approach to Covid did not really support it.
Johnson suggested giving older people a choice about isolation
The inquiry was shown messages from August 2020 in which Johnson suggested giving people over the age of 65 the choice of whether to isolate in their homes or run the “diminishing risk” of not shielding. He wrote: “If you are over 65, your risk of dying from Covid is probably as big as your risk of falling down stairs. And we don’t stop older people from using stairs.”
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, warned against the idea, pointing out that it would lead to an increase in the spread of the virus.
Johnson defended making the suggestion. He told the inquiry: “You can see that we didn’t do it. I was interrogating my advisers about points that have been made to me, which is my job.”
Johnson defended going against the advice of scientists by not introducing a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown
In September 2020, Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, urged the prime minister to introduce a so-called “circuit breaker” lockdown to tackle the rise of infections.
Johnson defended his decision to ignore the advice. He told the inquiry: “‘Circuit breaker’ is a glib phrase. It actually means an immensely difficult, costly exercise which falls hardest on the poorest and neediest in society. You then might have to do it again and again. And even then, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work.”
He pointed out that the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, was also against introducing a circuit breaker. The government chose instead to implement a regional system of tiered restrictions. Johnson said: “I thought that a regional approach was a sensible way to go into it; it was worth trying.”
Keith asked: “Why didn’t you apply what you knew to be the lesson learned from March, which is to go early, take a precautionary approach?” Johnson said: “We ratcheted up to the measures throughout September and October, we intensified the pressure on the virus. The thing that really threw us off was the Kent variant, the Alpha variant.”
Johnson denied believing that older people needed ‘to accept their fate’
The inquiry previously heard that Vallance expressed alarm about Johnson being “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.
Johnson denied that this was his view. He said: “It does not do justice to my thoughts. We weren’t remotely reconciled to fatalities across the country … I had to speak for everybody who wasn’t in the meeting and who wanted these points put to the scientists.”
Johnson was surprised that scientists had not been consulted on ‘eat out to help out’
Johnson said he assumed that the “eat out to help out” hospitality scheme had been cleared by government scientists. He said he was surprised by Whitty describing it as “eat out and get the virus”.
He claimed he was unaware that Vallance and Whitty were against the scheme. Johnson said: “I’m fairly confident that it was discussed several times in meetings in which I believe they must have been present. I don’t quite understand how that could have happened.”
He added: “I remember being surprised, later – I think it was in September – when Chris says, ‘This is eat out to help the virus.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s funny,’ because I didn’t remember any previous controversy about it.”
Johnson joked about ‘singing and obesity’ in Wales contributing to high Covid rates, according to Vallance
The former prime minister blamed high rates of Covid in Wales on “singing and obesity”, according to a note in Vallance’s diary.
In September 2020 the chief scientific adviser noted increases in Covid infections across the UK, according to a page shown to the inquiry. He wrote: “Wales very high – PM says, ‘It is the singing and the obesity … I never said that.’”
Johnson was not asked about the comments.
Johnson dismissed the idea of consulting with trade unions about ending working from home as ‘bollocks’
On 2 July 2021, Vallance noted in his diary that Johnson wanted everyone to return to work. He quoted Johnson as saying: “We can’t have the bollocks of consulting with employees and trade unions. They need to all come back to work – all the malingering, workshy people.”
Asked if it was wrong to show such a dismissive attitude to consulting with unions, Johnson said: “Not necessarily … My worry was that there was going to be an inertia and a desire to to stay with working from home, which was not, in my view, necessarily going to be beneficial for a strong economic recovery that would benefit trades union members and their families.”