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The Covid Inquiry: Johnson addresses the ‘let it rip’ strategy

Over the past two days, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced more than 10 hours of questioning by Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel to the Covid inquiry.

Over the past two days, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced more than 10 hours of questioning by Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel to the Covid inquiry.

During this time, Johnson has been given the opportunity to defend how he handled the pandemic and apologise for the mistakes that were made during his time in office.

Keith quizzed Johnson on whether he implemented the first lockdown at the right time, his alleged ‘let it rip’ strategy, the culture in Number 10, and thousands of missing WhatsApp messages.

Day one of the Covid inquiry: the early stages of the pandemic

On the first day of the inquiry, Johnson described 2020 as a “tragic year” and apologised for the “pain and the loss and the suffering” of Covid victims and their families.

While Johnson holds that the government ‘did their best’ with the evidence they had, he admitted that “inevitably, [they] got some things wrong.” He also said he takes “personal responsibility” for the decisions that were made.

While Johnson did not always agree with Keith’s line of inquiry, he said given the chance, he would have done certain things differently. He admitted:

  • The government should have “collectively twigged much sooner” that Covid was spreading through asymptomatic transmission
  • He should not have shook hands with Covid patients at the Royal Free Hospital in London March 2020
  • He should have cancelled mass gatherings such as the Cheltenham Festival and Champions League football matches
  • He should have addressed comments made by Dominic Cummings to former senior civil servant Helen MacNamara
  • Gender balance of his team “should have been better” and Covid meetings were often “too male dominated”.

Was the 2020 lockdown imposed at the right time?

Johnson also admitted that Number 10 was slow to realise how fast Covid was spreading, and the fact it was spreading asymptomatically. He said if they had realised this “there are many things we would have done differently”.

However, when quizzed on whether the full lockdown and stay at home order in March 2020 was fully necessary, Johnson said it was, and that it helped to “suppress the R-rate”.

He said the government had “run out of time” and had “no other tool” to control the virus. Johnson said he did what he could to give healthcare workers “the best possible chance.”

When asked about the 5,000 WhatsApps missing from his phone, Johnson said it had “something to do with the app going down and then coming up again.”

“For the avoidance of doubt, to make it absolutely clear, I haven’t removed any WhatsApps from my phone,” he added.

Downing street culture

Keith also quizzed Johnson on the ‘toxic’ culture in Downing Street during the pandemic, and whether this affected the government’s ability to make measured, evidence-based decisions.

Keith said the inquiry had so far heard a “great deal of evidence” that there were systemic problems in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office.

This included people in the wrong jobs, leaderships issues (including ‘God complexes’), toxicity, misogyny and perpetual internecine warfare.

When asked if he was aware of this, Johnson said he was trying to do his best for a country that needed “continuous urgent action” and he thought it would be better to have a “disputatious culture” than one that was “quietly acquiescent”.

While he admitted that his team were “occasionally argumentative”, he said this was “no bad thing”, as people could “say things they thought were going to be controversial.”

Johnson was also asked about why he did not sack the health secretary, Matt Hancock, when he was advised to by senior colleagues. In response, Johnson said he thought Hancock was “doing a good job.”

“He’s intellectually able, he was on top of the subject, and whatever his failings may or may not have been, I didn’t see any advantage to the country … in moving him in exchange for someone else, when I couldn’t be sure that we were necessarily going to be trading up,” he said.

Day two: the government’s handling of the second and third Covid waves

On day two of the inquiry, Keith began to question Johnson on his handling of the second and third Covid waves, and whether the government introduced policies which encouraged people to socialise too soon.

A significant focus of today’s conversations centred around the ‘let it rip’ approach, which Sir Patrick Vallance accused the former PM of taking in his personal diary entries.

However, Johnson denied the idea that this was his own phrase, and said he was simply trying to “represent a view that was sadly quite widespread.”

He refuted the idea that he delayed measures in any way, saying this was “rubbish” and “completely wrong.”

“My position was that we had to save human life at all ages and that was the objective of the strategy, and that is what we did,” he said.

Johnson was also asked why the government didn’t do more to protect people from minority ethnic backgrounds, despite being informed of the risks. In response, he said the government did not know the “extent to which the virus itself would impact different groups differently” and this made it harder to put specific measures in place.

School closures and Eat Out to Help Out

Discussion then turned to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme introduced in summer 2020. Johnson defended this scheme despite Sir Patrick Vallance previously stating that it is likely to have increased Covid transmissions and death.

Johnson said he didn’t think it was a gamble to introduce the scheme, and while Keith reports that scientific advisors, such as Chris Whitty, said they were not in favour of the plan, Johnson said he doesn’t remember “any controversy about it”.

During this same period when hundreds of retail establishments were reopening, the government chose not to reopen schools. Johnson defended this decision saying schools were “big potential reservoirs of risk” and “younger people can easily transmit the virus to older and more vulnerable people”.

Johnson was also asked why in January 2021 the government decided to keep schools shut. In response, Johnson said he was “desperate” to keep schools open, but it just “wasn’t a runner.”

The tier system

Following a rise in infections, on 12 October 2020 the government introduced the tier system, which saw the country divided up into geographical regions, each with their own set of restrictions.

This was short-lived, with another full-scale national lockdown introduced less than three weeks later on 31 October.

Johnson was quizzed on why the government chose to pursue a tiered system rather than a circuit breaker, for example. This was initially suggested by Cummings, with plans to close gyms, restaurants, cafes, leisure centres and other social settings to stop the virus spreading.

However, Johnson said while a circuit breaker may have worked in the short term, it didn’t seem like an appropriate long-term solution. For this reason, he believed it was “sensible” to take a regional approach since Covid was affecting some regions more than others.

He said the government wanted to “crush the virus where it was most prevalent”, but it was clear within weeks that the scheme was not working.

Partygate

Johnson was then quizzed about what is now known as ‘Partygate’ – a series of social gatherings which took place in Number 10 at the height of the pandemic.

Brenda Campbell KC, representing Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, asked Johnson whether he could have stopped these parties from going ahead. He said he couldn’t, but admits he should have “issued general instructions to people to be mindful of rules and how it might appear.”

Johnson has also said that what supposedly happened in Downing Street is “a million miles from the reality of what actually happened” and that the characterisation of these ‘parties’ is a “travesty of the truth.”

Inquiry has revealed that Johnson ‘did not get the big calls right’, campaigners say

A key message Johnson has emphasised during this inquiry is that he does indeed care about the victims who lost their lives during the pandemic and their families.

Talking for the first time in public about the issue, Johnson refuted the idea that he is ‘indifferent’ about the lives lost, particularly those of older people. “I did care, and I continue to care passionately about it,” he said.

“I just want to remind you that 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. Some of us were going to make it and some of us weren’t.

“I knew from that experience what an appalling disease this is… I had absolutely no personal doubt about that from March onwards. To say that I didn’t care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right.”

In spite of this, the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK said the past two days of questioning has revealed that Johnson is “self-serving” and “not fit for power.”

“He did not ‘get the big calls right’, he failed to take the pandemic seriously in early 2020 leaving us brutally unprepared, and failed to learn from his mistakes meaning that the second wave had an even higher death toll than the first.

“The NHS was in fact severely overwhelmed, which he would know if he had met with the many thousands of bereaved families whose loved ones either couldn’t get into hospital, or couldn’t get the treatment they needed once there. The UK was not ‘in the middle of the pack’, it suffered the second highest death toll in western Europe,” said Becky Kummer, a spokesperson for the group.

Kummer says the inquiry has shown that Johnson delayed implementing measures for “fear of how it might impact his reputation with certain sections of the press.”

“If his vanity hadn’t taken priority over public health, many thousands of people, including my dad, might still be with us today,” he said.

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