Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told Britain’s COVID-19 inquiry that any suggestion he wanted to allow the virus to “let rip” was “completely wrong” and hit out at “absolutely absurd” portrayals of partying in Downing Street during the pandemic as he faced a second day of questioning at a public inquiry.
Johnson, 59, was forced from office last year after public anger erupted over revelations about a series of COVID-19 lockdown-breaching parties called “Partygate”.
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But he insisted to the inquiry on Thursday that perceptions of the scandal were “a million miles from the reality of what happened”.
It follows the ex-leader apologising on Wednesday for “the pain and the loss and the suffering” caused by the pandemic on his much-anticipated first day in the witness box and accepting “mistakes” had “unquestionably” occurred.
The United Kingdom 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 virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people – one of the worst official per capita tolls among Western nations.
Johnson has faced a barrage of criticism from former aides for alleged indecisiveness and lack of scientific understanding as well as for a Downing Street culture that facilitated Partygate.
“I continue to regret very much what happened,” Johnson said on Thursday when asked about the scandal before branding “dramatic representations” of it “a travesty of the truth”.
“The version of events that has entered the popular consciousness about what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street is a million miles from the reality of what actually happened,” he added.
His aides and officials “thought they were working very, very hard – which they were – and I certainly thought that what we were doing was … within the rules,” Johnson said.
Police last year fined the former leader and his then-finance minister and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as well as dozens of staff for flouting the COVID restrictions they set by attending boozy gatherings in Downing Street.
A parliamentary inquiry concluded Johnson had repeatedly misled parliament over the parties, and he resigned as a lawmaker shortly before its findings were published this year.
‘Simply not right’
Johnson’s pushback came as the lawyer for the inquiry, created to learn lessons from the country’s response to the health emergency, grilled his contentious decision-making as the virus repeatedly re-emerged in 2020.
The ex-leader defended his choice to delay a national lockdown during a second wave of COVID-19 and his internal use of the phrase “let it rip” to refer to a possible so-called herd immunity strategy.
Johnson claimed “plenty of people” were using the phrase to describe the potential strategy of shielding the vulnerable and allowing the rest of the population to acquire immunity.
He also disputed suggestions that offering financial inducements for people to eat out after the first lockdown was lifted – Sunak’s signature policy – had caused a rise in infections.
“I can’t see anything that conclusively shows that it made a big difference,” he said. “If it was safe to open hospitality, then it must be safe for people to go to hospitality.”
In his first day of evidence, Johnson repeatedly insisted he and officials did their “level best” and that his priority was always to save lives and the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
On Thursday, he appeared close to tears as he pushed back on claims of “indifference” towards those with COVID-19, recalling his own hospitalisation with the virus.
“When I went into intensive care, I saw around me a lot of people who were not actually elderly. In fact, they were middle-aged men, and they were quite like me – and some of us were going to make it and some of us weren’t,” he said.
“What I’m trying to tell you in a nutshell – and the NHS, thank God, did an amazing job and helped me survive – but I knew from that experience what appalling a 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.”
But relatives of the bereaved have been highly critical.
Four women were evicted from the inquiry room on Wednesday after holding up signs reading: “The dead can’t hear your apologies.” Later, a crowd that had gathered outside the venue heckled loudly as he left for the day.
Sunak will face the inquiry on Monday.