Boris Johnson was accused of “shocking disrespect” by families bereaved by Covid after he claimed it was unfair to have expected him to stop parties held by “hard-working” aides in Downing Street during lockdown.
In a second lengthy and sometimes difficult day of testimony to the UK’s Covid inquiry, the former prime minister also prompted anger by calling media coverage and TV adaptations of the No 10 parties “absurd” and “a travesty of the truth”.
Mr Johnson was also challenged about his attitude to older people and his suggestions that they were “going to die anyway”. He insisted he was trying to generate debate and make officials feel they could speak freely.
Asked about the parties, which led to 126 fixed-penalty notices being issued to No 10 for breaches of Covid rules, Mr Johnson – who will be followed at the inquiry by Rishi Sunak on Monday – said that while he was sorry for this, his staff had been unfairly maligned.
“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 told Hugo Keith, the lead counsel to the inquiry. “I speak on behalf of hundreds and hundreds of hard-working civil servants who thought that they were following the rules. Some of the media coverage, the dramatic representations, that we’re now having of this are absolutely absurd.”
He added: “I think that the characterisation, the representation that has been of what civil servants and advisers were doing in No 10 has been a travesty of the truth. They thought they were working very, very hard, which they were.”
In later questioning from Brenda Campbell, representing bereaved families from Northern Ireland, he rejected the idea that he could have done more at the time to prevent illegal events taking place in No 10 during lockdown.
“I think that the trouble was, as I have said, that people were working extremely hard,” he said. Pressed on whether he could have done more, he answered: “Given what I knew at the time about what was going on, the answer to that is no.”
In his exchanges with Mr Keith, Mr Johnson argued that the breaches were largely inadvertent because staff did not properly understand rules and were working under intense pressure.
He said: “We were having to call meeting after meeting after meeting, at all hours of the day and night, in rapid succession and summon people rapidly to different meetings. In those conditions, it was very hard to follow the letter of the guidance, and I have tried to explain that many, many, times.”
This interpretation was angrily rejected by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group, whose barrister was among those who questioned Johnson on Thursday.
Becky Kummer, a spokesperson for the group, said: “He admitted that he allowed a culture of rule-breaking to thrive, lied through his teeth about it and showed shocking disrespect to the bereaved in doing so. The same attitude has been on display in evidence we’ve seen throughout the inquiry.”
The hearing was shown a series of messages or entries from the diary of Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser during Covid, in which Johnson made glib comments or appeared to demean or insult certain groups.
One extract from Mr Vallance’s diary in September 2020 described Mr Johnson responding to high Covid levels in Wales by telling a meeting: “It is the singing and the obesity? ... I never said that.”
Mr Johnson was challenged by Danny Friedman, the barrister for a group of disability organisations, about his various descriptions of older people, for example that they had enjoyed a “good innings” if killed by the virus.
While saying he regretted the offence caused by private comments being published, Mr Johnson went on to argue that much of what was attributed to him was false, and that even when he was “speaking bluntly and in an unpolished way about these issues”, it was to help other people in meetings think they could express ideas freely.
The one point at which Mr Johnson became obviously passionate came when Mr Keith said communications from the former prime minister about the parties made him seem as if “you didn’t care that much”.
Mr Johnson angrily rejected this, recounting being in intensive care in March 2020 with his own serious bout of the virus: “I knew from that experience what an appalling 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.”
When the questioning was over, Mr Johnson ended by first suggesting to Heather Hallett, the inquiry chair, that she properly examine the structures of the health and care system, and also that someone should try to investigate the origin of Covid.
The first was being looked at in the later module, Ms Hallett replied, while the latter was not in the scope of her inquiry. She added that because he set up the inquiry as prime minister, he had also set the terms of reference. – Guardian