Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged his government “got some things wrong” in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as he gave evidence at a public inquiry into his handling of the global health crisis.
In the first of two days in the witness box on Wednesday, Johnson apologised for “the pain and the loss and the suffering” caused to the families of the victims.
Testifying under oath, Johnson acknowledged that “we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge” when reports of a new virus began to emerge from China in early 2020.
The former prime minister has faced a barrage of criticism from former aides for alleged indecisiveness and a lack of scientific understanding during the pandemic.
Johnson – forced from office last year over lockdown-breaching parties held in Downing Street during the pandemic – accepted that “mistakes” had “unquestionably” been made but repeatedly insisted he and officials did their “level best”.
“I understand the feeling of the victims and their families and I’m deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering to those victims and their families,” he said.
Johnson, 59, was briefly interrupted as a protester was ordered from the inquiry room after refusing to sit down during the apology.
Several others were also later removed.
“Inevitably we got some things wrong,” Johnson continued, adding he took personal responsibility for all the decisions made.
“At the time I felt … we were doing our best in very difficult circumstances.”
Ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the inquiry last week that he had tried to raise the alarm inside the government, saying thousands of lives could have been saved by putting the country under lockdown a few weeks earlier than the eventual date of March 23, 2020.
Britain went on to have one of Europe’s longest and strictest lockdowns, as well as one of the continent’s highest COVID-19 death tolls, with the coronavirus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
Grilled by inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith, Johnson acknowledged that he did not attend any of the government’s five crisis meetings on the new virus in February 2020, and only “once or twice” looked at meeting minutes from the government’s scientific advisory group. He said he relied on “distilled” advice from his science and medicine advisers.
Johnson’s understanding of specialist advice was doubted last month by his former chief scientific officer, Patrick Vallance, who said he was frequently “bamboozled” by data.
The ex-leader has also denied claims he said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown.
His former top aide Dominic Cummings and communications chief Lee Cain both criticised their ex-boss when they gave evidence at the inquiry.
Cummings, who has faced his own criticism for writing expletive-filled WhatsApp messages, said Johnson circulated a video to his scientific advisers of “a guy blowing a special hairdryer up his nose ‘to kill Covid’.”
Cain said COVID-19 was the “wrong crisis” for his ex-boss’s skillset, adding that he became “exhausted” by his alleged indecision in dealing with the crisis.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was Johnson’s finance minister during the pandemic, is due to be questioned at the inquiry in the coming weeks.
Deleted WhatsApp messages
Johnson arrived around three hours early for the proceedings, with some suggesting he was eager to avoid relatives of the COVID-19 bereaved, who gathered outside later in the morning.
Johnson – whose lengthy written submission to the inquiry will be published later on Wednesday – insisted the “overwhelming priority” of his government had been protecting the National Health Service (NHS) and saving lives.
Rebutting evidence that Britain fared worse than its European neighbours, he argued “every country struggled with a new pandemic” while noting the UK had an “extremely elderly population” and is one of the continent’s most densely populated countries.
Johnson, who was treated in intensive care for COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, has reportedly spent weeks with his lawyers, reviewing thousands of pages of evidence ahead of his testimony.
His grilling began with questions about a failure to provide about 5,000 WhatsApp messages on his phone from late January 2020 to June 2020.
“I don’t know the exact reason,” he claimed, adding the app had “somehow” automatically erased its chat history from that period.
Asked if he had initiated a so-called factory reset, Johnson said: “I don’t remember any such thing”.