I should have twigged Covid risk earlier, admits Boris Johnson

Covid Inquiry

   Boris Johnson has acknowledged that he should have recognized the severity of Covid earlier, admitting that earlier action could have been taken against the virus. During his testimony to the Covid inquiry, the former prime minister admitted underestimating the "scale and the pace of the challenge" posed by the pandemic. Johnson mentioned that this underestimation was shared by scientists and the entire Whitehall establishment.

While defending his record in office, Johnson insisted that ministers did their "level best" in the circumstances. He addressed criticism regarding the timing of the first lockdown, attributing it to incorrect modeling and advice against imposing measures too early. Despite admitting to some "incoherence in our thinking," Johnson defended the speed of action once the decision to act was made.

At the start of his testimony, Johnson expressed regret for the "pain and the loss and the suffering" experienced by people during the pandemic. However, his remarks were interrupted by protesters, and some bereaved family members displayed signs conveying the message: "The dead can't hear your apologies."

The former prime minister has faced criticism for delayed decision-making and indecision during the pandemic. During questioning by lead inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC, Johnson maintained a measured performance, in contrast to previous confrontations, particularly over the Partygate scandal earlier in the year.

Despite some moments of tension, including Johnson having to retract an accusation and becoming emotional when discussing the return of the virus after the initial national lockdown, the testimony provided insight into the decision-making processes during what he described as a "tragic, tragic year" in 2020.

During more than five hours of testimony, Mr. Johnson defended his overall approach to the pandemic, emphasizing that dealing with Covid required "completely novel" measures, and his responsibility was to thoroughly assess the arguments. He acknowledged that he, along with the entire Whitehall establishment and the scientific community, had underestimated the scale and pace of the challenge.

Reflecting on the early stages of the pandemic, Mr. Johnson admitted to being "rattled" by the chaotic scenes in northern Italy in mid-February 2020, where overwhelmed hospitals were widely reported. He expressed regret, stating, "We should have collectively twigged much sooner. I should have twigged."

In response to criticism, he acknowledged the gender imbalance in his team, acknowledging that "too many meetings were male-dominated." Additionally, Mr. Johnson faced technical issues in retrieving around 5,000 WhatsApp messages from his old phone between January and June 2020 but denied deleting any messages, asserting that he had made efforts to provide all relevant evidence to the inquiry.

Expressing regret, Mr. Johnson addressed his previous description of long Covid as "bollocks" in a handwritten note from October 2020. He also conceded a lapse in precautionary measures, acknowledging that he should not have shaken hands with patients during a hospital visit in March 2020.

Hindsight prompted Mr. Johnson to recognize that mass gatherings should have been halted earlier, not solely guided by scientific advice but also as a symbol of government earnestness. Despite calls to dismiss Health Secretary Matt Hancock from his former adviser Dominic Cummings, Mr. Johnson defended his decision to retain Hancock, citing him as a "good communicator."

Families bereaved by Covid held up pictures of lost loved ones outside the inquiry building (Reuters)

WhatsApp messages 

Mr. Johnson rejected assertions that the expletive-laden WhatsApp messages between his advisers, revealed during the inquiry, indicated a "toxic" culture in his Downing Street operation. He characterized the language as a reflection of the "deep anxiety" of individuals doing their best under challenging circumstances. According to him, the messages illustrated that those around him were naturally self-critical and critical of others, which he deemed "creatively useful" for decision-making.

Addressing concerns raised by former civil servant Helen MacNamara, who accused him of not addressing "misogynistic language" used about her in a WhatsApp group by his former adviser Dominic Cummings, Mr. Johnson admitted to having spoken to MacNamara. He mentioned not recalling seeing the language at the time but acknowledged being part of the group. Mr. Johnson expressed regret and stated that he had apologized to MacNamara for not addressing the issue when it occurred.