Shropshire Star

Key points: Boris Johnson’s evidence to the Covid Inquiry

Here, the PA news agency summarises the first of the former prime minister’s two days of questioning.

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Covid-19 pandemic inquiry

Boris Johnson’s highly anticipated two-day hearing before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry has begun.

Here are the key points from Wednesday’s evidence so far:

– An apology backfires with protesters

In opening remarks to the inquiry, Mr Johnson said he was sorry for the loss and the pain suffered by Covid victims but four people were removed from the hearing room after they held up signs reading: “The Dead can’t hear your apologies.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Boris Johnson arrives to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London (PA)

– Mr Johnson accepts personal responsibility for all decisions

The former PM acknowledged that mistakes were “unquestionably” made by his administration in its response to the pandemic, and said he took full responsibility for all the choices made.

– He ‘should have twigged sooner’

Mr Johnson admitted ministers “should have twigged much sooner” that there was a need for action but argued Whitehall more broadly had underestimated the scale of the challenge.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Lobby Akinnola holds a press conference alongside protesters outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (PA)

– The former PM defends his No 10 from ‘toxic culture’ claims

The ex-PM admitted that his top team was male-dominated but played down claims of a dysfunctional work environment, suggesting that complacency and a lack of scrutiny would have been worse than some of the strongly worded criticism unveiled in WhatsApps shared between key figures.

– PM only read Sage minutes ‘once or twice’

Mr Johnson said he may have only read the minutes of hundreds of meetings held by the committee of scientists advising the government on Covid “once or twice”. He said he was provided with “summaries” but in hindsight hearing the full discussion might have been valuable.

– He denies taking a ‘long holiday’ in early stages of Covid

Mr Johnson told the inquiry he did not take a long break in February half-term 2020 and was still working.

– He defends not chairing Cobra meetings in early 2020

The former PM was questioned about whether five Cobra meetings chaired by then health secretary Matt Hancock should have suggested the situation was serious enough to require his “direct involvement”. He said that the virus, between January and February that year, had been a “cloud on the horizon” and it was unclear whether it would become a “typhoon”.

– His recollection of ‘tragic, tragic year’ brings up emotions

Mr Johnson looked on the verge of tears as he described 2020 as a “tragic, tragic” year.

– He defends the decision to impose England’s first lockdown on March 23 2020

Faced with rising cases and uncertainty about the impact of other measures, he “no longer had the luxury of waiting”, he said. “It was over.”

– He regrets describing long Covid as “bollocks”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
A document from October 2020 including Boris Johnson’s hand written comment on long Covid (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

A document from October 2020 described symptoms of the condition, beside which Mr Johnson wrote “bollocks” and “this is Gulf War syndrome stuff”.

“I regret very much using that language and I should have thought about the possibility of future publication,” the former prime minister said.

– It was “optically wrong” to hold meetings with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The then-prime minister thought it would risk being a “mini EU”, giving equal status to the leaders of the devolved administrations, although he said he would have liked them to have delivered a more united UK-wide message during the fight against Covid.

– Mr Johnson personally apologises to former official Helen MacNamara

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

She was the subject of an expletive-laden message to Mr Johnson from his ex-adviser Dominic Cummings, who describing the then-deputy cabinet secretary as a “c***” who “must be out of our hair”.

“I don’t remember seeing it at the time but I must have seen it because I was on the group,” Mr Johnson said. “I have rung Helen MacNamara to apologise to her for not having called it out.”

– Mr Johnson defends Matt Hancock, saying he did a good job in difficult circumstances

He said he had considered moving the then-health secretary as he came under fire in 2020 but instead backed him, partly because there was no guarantee he would be “trading up” with a replacement minister.

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