Johnson to apologise but say he got big calls right at COVID inquiry

Politics

Boris Johnson is set to apologise for mistakes the government made during the pandemic, but insist he got the big calls right, when he gives evidence to the COVID inquiry. 

The former prime minister is the most highly-anticipated witness, and will be questioned for two days about decisions he made which took the country into three national lockdowns.

Those familiar with his arguments say he believes that the government “didn’t get everything right” but that he will robustly defend the timing of restrictions, and what he believes are his successes – including the vaccine rollout.

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Guto Harri, who served as his director of communications in 2022, told Sky News Mr Johnson had to balance conflicting advice from scientists and conflicting priorities from ministers and that “no country got this entirely right”.

“Boris Johnson set up this inquiry and takes it seriously”, he said. “He’s not going there to settle old scores or to name-call people who’ve been rude about him.

“He’s going there very seriously, having submitted a vast swathe of documents and a very detailed statement to explain the context in which unbelievably difficult and unprecedented judgement calls about lives and livelihoods and so much else had to be made.

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“Does he think he got it 100% right? Of course not. But it would be a terrible mistake if his appearance at the inquiry was treated like some sort of Christmas pantomime and he was the pantomime villain.”

Mr Johnson is not expected to dwell on personalities – although witnesses are not told in advance what the lawyers will focus on – and will instead try to steer the answers back to policy decisions.

Key figures such as Rishi Sunak and Dominic Cummings are not expected to feature heavily in his testimony, we are told.

Mr Johnson, who started receiving official papers a year ago and has now studied 6,000 pages of them with his lawyers, is defensive about the timing of the March lockdown – which other witnesses have said was too late.

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It’s understood he will point to evidence that chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty was among those arguing that imposing restrictions too early may lead to people tiring of them; and that the herd immunity strategy was still being considered by scientists until mid-March.

Another person close to him said it “was not the case that the system was screaming for a lockdown and that we had our fingers in our ears”.

A lot of criticism of Mr Johnson has been heard at the inquiry, which he set up in order to learn the lessons of the pandemic for the future.

Former chief scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance, who regularly appeared at press conferences with the former prime minister, told the hearing that Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science around the spread of the virus.

Former senior civil servants detailed a “toxic” and “misogynistic” culture among his Number 10 team. Meanwhile, WhatsApp messages sent by his advisers at key moments during the pandemic describe Mr Johnson as a “trolley” veering between pro and against restrictions.

One of his close allies, Lord Udny-Lister told the inquiry that Mr Johnson at one point said he’d rather see “let the bodies pile high” than impose a second lockdown – something Mr Johnson has denied.

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‘Science was not Boris Johnson’s forte’

And Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, complained to colleagues later in 2020 that Mr Johnson “cannot lead”.

The former prime minister is expected to take full responsibility for all the decisions the government made – and point out that a multilayered democracy like the UK, with local and devolved government, cannot take the kind of lockdown decisions that countries like China did.

He is also understood to be adamant that the UK’s performance in terms of excess deaths and the recovery of the economy is far from the worst among advanced nations.

Much of what he will say will be familiar, and families watching will be looking out for the level of contrition he shows – and whether he admits specific regrets, for example in the closure of schools.

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Other flashpoints could be if Mr Johnson, like Michael Gove, has anything to say about the origins of the virus; and whether he now – knowing what we do about how it turned out – would recommend the UK ever has another lockdown.

Mr Johnson’s legacy – tarnished by partygate, is very much at stake, but whether can he at this stage change anyone’s mind is another matter.

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