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Boris Johnson admits mistakes were made and says ‘sorry’ to Covid victims

Former prime minister Boris Johnson gives evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Former prime minister Boris Johnson gives evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Boris Johnson has said he takes personal responsibility for mistakes made in the handling of the pandemic as he apologised to victims at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

The former prime minister said his government should have “unquestionably” done things differently but insisted “we did our level best” in “very difficult” circumstances.

His highly-anticipated appearance was hit by protests as he began issuing an apology to victims of the pandemic.

Four people were removed from the hearing room after they held up signs reading: “The Dead can’t hear your apologies.”

“Can I just say how glad I am to be at this inquiry and how sorry I am for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the Covid victims,” Mr Johnson said.

He went on to acknowledge that his government made errors, saying: “So many people suffered, so many people lost their lives.

“Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes.”

Mr Johnson also said: “I take personal responsibility for all the decisions that we made.”

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Protesters outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry at Dorland House in London (Jordan Pettitt/PA)

Among the decisions he takes responsibility for are the speed of the Government’s response to the pandemic in 2020, the lockdown decisions and their timeliness, the explosion of the virus in the residential care sector, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and the decision not to introduce a circuit-breaker later in 2020, he confirmed.

He said: “With hindsight, it may be easy to see things that we could have done differently or it may be possible to see things that we could have done differently.

“At the time, I felt and I know that everybody else felt that we were doing our best in very difficult circumstances to protect life and protect the NHS.”

He claimed he was “not sure” whether Government decision-making had led to “materially” a larger number of excess deaths as a result of the pandemic.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Boris Johnson is questioned by lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Pressed repeatedly on why the UK had such a high rate of excess deaths – the second-worst in Europe after Italy – he cited “headwinds” including an “extremely elderly population” with many health issues and being a “very densely populated country”, which “did not help”.

Challenged about the slow response to the unfolding crisis at the start of 2020, Mr Johnson said the wider government “underestimated” the threat posed by the virus.

“It would certainly be fair to say of me, the entire Whitehall establishment, scientific community included, our advisers included, that we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge,” he said.

“I just don’t think people really computed the implications” of the data coming from China, where the outbreak began, he said.

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Dominic Cummings was Cummings was Boris Johnson’s chief adviser at the height of the pandemic (James Manning/PA)

A coronavirus pandemic was “outside our living experience” and instead the system remembered Sars, Mers and swine flu, Mr Johnson said, as he rejected the suggestion there was a “failed mindset” in Government.

Mr Johnson admitted he may have only read Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) minutes “once or twice”, adding that, in retrospect, “it may have been valuable” to have done so.

He said he instead relied on England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty and former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance who jointly chaired Sage.

Mr Johnson defended keeping former health secretary Matt Hancock in his post, despite calls from his aide Dominic Cummings that he should have been sacked.

He said Mr Hancock “may have had defects” but “I thought that he was doing his best in very difficult circumstances and I thought he was a good communicator”.

The ex-premier contradicted claims by Mr Hancock that he tried to raise his concerns about coronavirus with him four times in January 2020, saying he could not remember all the conversations with his then-health secretary.

Baroness Heather Hallett
Baroness Heather Hallett is leading the inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Mr Johnson was also grilled on what previous witnesses to the inquiry have described as a toxic atmosphere in Downing Street and the influence of Mr Cummings, his chief adviser at the time.

He said expletive-heavy and sharply critical WhatsApp messages exchanged between senior aides were from “very frazzled” people involved in tackling the pandemic and “reflected the agony” of the country.

He said his No 10 team was made up of “a lot of highly talented, highly motivated people” who, “under great stress and great anxiety about themselves and their own performance, will be inclined to be critical of others”.

While denying suggestions of a toxic culture, Mr Johnson admitted his top team was too “male-dominated” and the gender balance “should have been better”.

Before Mr Johnson’s evidence commenced, Lady Hallett complained about the briefings to the press, saying that leaks of the witness statement undermined the process.

She said: “Failing to respect confidentiality undermines the inquiry’s ability to do its job fairly, effectively and independently.”

Home Office minister Chris Philp earlier joked “it’s the first time Boris has ever been early for anything” after the former prime minister arrived at the inquiry venue around three hours before the start of the hearing, meaning he avoided many of the protesters who gathered outside.