Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave testimony to the COVID-19 Inquiry, a body examining the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, on Wednesday and Thursday. During the hearing, he acknowledged that his government “may have made mistakes” in their handling of the pandemic and said he was “deeply sorry for the pain and suffering” caused by the virus. The apology was met by four protesters holding up signs in the gallery with pictures of dead relatives and the words, “The dead can’t hear your apologies.” The evidence is available on the COVID-19 Inquiry’s website and testimony is available to watch in four videos on the COVID-19 Inquiry’s YouTube channel.
The inquiry’s questions centered around Johnson’s role in managing the pandemic. During the questioning, a theme of criticizing Johnson’s actions and urging him to take accountability for them emerged. Johnson maintained a very diplomatic stance on his government’s approach, claiming from the beginning of his testimony:
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. Inevitably we got some things wrong. I think we were doing our best at the time, given what we knew. Given the information I had available to me at the time, I think we did our level best. Were there things that should have been done differently? Unquestionably.
In the final segment of the hearing, he admitted there was “blurred” messaging, causing “a dissonance in the message.” He said:
I think that it would certainly be fair to say of me, the entire Whitehall establishment, scientific community included, our advisers included, that we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge. You can see that very clearly in those early days in March. We were all collectively underestimating how fast it had already spread in the UK. We put the first peak too late, we thought it would be May/June – that was totally wrong. I don’t blame the scientists for that at all. That was the feeling and it just turned out to be wrong.
Johnson was also questioned about the “partygate” gatherings, in which Johnson’s government was accused of gathering on government property during the height of the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown measures. “People were working extremely hard,” Johnson began, before being interrupted by Brenda Campbell KC, who said “We’ve heard that before.” She continued, “This may be one where a yes or no answer would suffice, could you have done more to stop it?” In response, Johnson said “No.” Johnson blamed the media for allegedly misconstruing the scandal. He claimed that the public’s understanding of “what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street is a million miles from the reality of what actually happened.”
While admitting to a degree of failure on the government’s part, Johnson frequently deferred to the conflicting opinions he was presented with during the pandemic and the difficulty he faced in balancing public safety with preserving the economy. He claimed this was the reason for the government’s “blurred” messaging. This very same point was at the heart of criticism levied by both former Downing Street Director of Communications Lee Cain and ex-Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister Dominic Cummings in their earlier testimonies.
The then-Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s notebook was a key piece of evidence during Johnson’s questioning. In it, Vallance wrote that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life.” Vallance continued, Johnson “thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just nature’s way of dealing with old people.” One leaked statement that caused protesters particular offense was one in which Johnson called long-COVID-19 “b*****s” and compares it to Gulf War Syndrome, an illness not medically recognized in the UK but acknowledged by many veterans and members of the scientific community.
Johnson denied allegations that he is “shamefully ageist” and apologized for “all hurt and offence caused” by his language. At the same time, Johnson stressed that his job required him to “say things simply” and his “blunt and unpolished” words “represented the layman.” There was lots of evidence “not intended for publication,” including seven references within Vallance’s notebook to Johnson allegedly supporting “letting [COVID-19] rip” and letting the elderly die, which were read out in succession before the inquiry. The reading was met by silence from Johnson.
During the questioning, inquiry counsel Hugo Keith KC pressed Johnson on the government’s role in the high mortality rate in the UK during the pandemic. During the questioning, the former PM repeatedly disputed Keith’s statistics, claiming that he had seen evidence that the UK was “well down the European table and even further down the world table,” contrary to the KC’s assertion that it had the second highest rate in western Europe after Italy. Johnson argued that there were other influences on the death rate, including the “extremely elderly population,” a high rate of “COVID-related morbidities” and population density. When pushed on whether the government’s actions materially affected the death rate, Johnson responded, “The answer is: I don’t know.”
Other key moments were when Johnson defended former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who was accused of “talking down the clock” on the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on minority communities. Johnson also denied that UK-wide communication and messaging should have been improved.
Johnson’s testimony ended with him saying he was “rather sad it’s all over.” While acknowledging that it was outside the scope of the inquiry, Johnson urged people to investigate the cause of the pandemic. He said:
The issues of health and social care are absolutely critical, and the government that I led was embarked on a big programme to try and bring them together. I think the fact that we had those delayed discharge patients was very, very difficult in the NHS. I hope that this inquiry will give a kick to the powers that be to make sure that we really address that.
His testimony followed that of many other witnesses. The inquiry remains ongoing and is not expected to end until late 2027.