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Johnson: I did not back ‘let it rip’ Covid strategy in autumn 2020

Boris Johnson said that he did not back a ‘let it rip’ strategy (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Boris Johnson said that he did not back a ‘let it rip’ strategy (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Boris Johnson has said he was not “reconciled” to Covid deaths or thought it wise to “let it rip” in the autumn of 2020.

The former prime minister strongly rejected the idea that he backed such a strategy as the Government grappled with rising Covid cases in September 2020.

He conceded that the idea behind the phrase came up in discussions inside Downing Street as he pondered how to respond to an impending second wave.

Appearing before the Covid-19 Inquiry as he gave his second day of evidence, Mr Johnson was pressed on diary extracts from Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, on his thinking in the second half of the year.

Sir Patrick, in one diary entry in August, said Mr Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.

In another entry from October, the top scientist said the then prime minister was “obsessed with average age of death being 82”.

Later, in May 2021, Sir Patrick wrote: “PM meeting – Cx (Chancellor, then Rishi Sunak) suddenly pipes up on incentives already in place. Argues that we should let it rip a bit.”

Mr Johnson firmly denied that the extracts represented a glimpse into a government that favoured no national lockdown “until the last possible moment” and instead backed a tiered system.

“If you look at what we actually did, never mind the accounts that you have culled from people’s jottings from meetings that I’ve been in, if you look at what I actually said and what I actually did, there is an abundance of quotation from me, millions of words that I’ve spoken in Parliament or in press conferences or whatever, if you look at what we actually did, we went into lockdown as soon as we could for the first time round.

“We sensibly went for a regional approach when the disease picked up again, and then again went into lockdown on October 30/31.

“I think, frankly, it does not do justice to what we did – our thoughts, our feeling, my thoughts, my feelings, to say that we were remotely reconciled to fatalities across the country or that I believed that it was acceptable to let it rip.”

Mr Johnson, echoing remarks from Wednesday about his desire for a “disputatious” culture inside Downing Street, said he had to “challenge the consensus” in meetings.

“You have got to understand, these meetings comprised an overwhelming number of very, very talented, brilliant public health officials, civil servants and so on, scientists.

“I was representing the only layperson in the meeting.”

He told the inquiry: “This was a phrase that was common parlance at the time and remains so.

“This is exactly what you’d expect me to be talking about at this stage.”

He also rejected that a decision to impose a lockdown came too late.

“Clearly if you make any decision too late then there’s going to be a cost, and in the case of Covid there’s a cost in human life,” he told lead counsel Hugo Keith KC.

“What I wouldn’t accept is that all the decisions in September, October, November (2020) were too late.

“Nor would I accept, knowing what we did then, that the decision in March (2020) was too late.”

Mr Johnson was also quizzed on a September 2020 briefing involving a group of more lockdown-sceptic scientists, including Professor Carl Heneghan and Professor Sunetra Gupta.

At the time, there were suggestions that Covid-19 lockdowns could be avoided through “focused protection” for those at the greatest risk of developing severe disease while letting others resume their lives as normal.

The former prime minister told the inquiry that “the scientists who had been billed as the ‘let it rip brigade’ did not really support that approach.”

“The longer the conversation went on, I was fascinated to see how actually they migrated toward a precautionary approach.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who will appear before the inquiry on Monday, is also likely to face questions about the influence of the Treasury on Mr Johnson’s thinking and whether he also backed a “let it rip” strategy.

Mr Johnson was also quizzed on Mr Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out – a key focus of Lady Hallett’s probe – and whether scientists had been ignored in the creation of the scheme.

The former prime minister said it was not a seen as a “gamble” at the time and that he was “perplexed” at the suggestion top scientists were unaware of the scheme.

Leading Government scientists, as well as former health secretary Matt Hancock, have claimed they were not told in advance about the plan to revive the hospitality industry in the summer of 2020.