Former British prime minister Boris Johnson told the UK’s Covid Inquiry that he “should have twigged” the damaging potential of the virus much earlier than he did in the spring of 2020.
On his first day giving evidence to the inquiry in London, Mr Johnson admitted that his government had underestimated Covid as the pandemic began to unfold in February and March of that year. He said he and other senior government members didn’t really believe that the possible worst case scenarios he had been shown by advisers would transpire.
“I would accept that my mindset [in January and February 2020] was not as alarmed as we should have been. The concept of a pandemic did not necessarily imply the kind of utter disaster that Covid was to become,” said Mr Johnson.
“When you read that an Asiatic pandemic is about to sweep the world, you think you’ve heard it all before,” he said, referring to previous zoonotic diseases such as Sars, which spread in Asia in 2002 to 2004 but not in Europe. He said his initial hope was that Covid-19 would peter out the same way.
“I don’t think we were able to comprehend the implications of what we were actually looking at,” he said.
Mr Johnson tried to brush off repeated suggestions by Hugo Keith, the inquiry’s senior counsel, that he was disengaged from planning for the pandemic early on in the crisis. Mr Keith cited as evidence that the first five UK government cross-departmental Cobra crisis committee meetings were chaired not by the former prime minister, but by his health secretary, Matt Hancock.
Mr Johnson said he had asked Mr Hancock to keep him posted as the pandemic unfolded. The former prime minister did not chair his first Cobra meeting until the end of February. He cited February 28th as the date when it began to dawn on him that the pandemic was going to have a big impact. By mid-March, he suggested, he knew lockdowns would be inevitable.
The former prime minister faced questions over the culture of his political operation in 10 Downing Street, which was described as “toxic” by previous inquiry witnesses such as Mr Hancock. Mr Johnson conceded only that his office had a “disputatious culture”.
He said he had telephoned senior civil servant Helen McNamara, then the deputy cabinet secretary, who had been described in derogatory terms on a WhatsApp group of which he was a member.
He also sought to defend Mr Hancock, whose performance as health secretary had been panned by others such as his the former chief adviser in Number 10, Dominic Cummings. Mr Johnson said Mr Hancock had done a “good job in difficult circumstances”, before he was forced to step down in 2021 when he broke social distancing rules while having an affair with his adviser.
The morning session of the inquiry, in front of chairwoman Heather Hallett, was disrupted by protests from family members of Covid victims and also by anti-vaccine campaigners. Four family members of Covid victims were asked to leave the inquiry’s public gallery when they interrupted Mr Johnson’s apology for his government’s mistakes during Covid.