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Protesters removed from inquiry as Johnson says ‘sorry’ to Covid victims

Former prime minister Boris Johnson gave evidence at Dorland House in London (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Former prime minister Boris Johnson gave evidence at Dorland House in London (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Four people have been removed from the UK Covid-19 Inquiry as Boris Johnson began his evidence with an apology to victims of the pandemic.

Ushers at the inquiry removed multiple people from the hearing room after chairwoman Baroness Heather Hallett was forced to intervene.

It came as the former prime minister offered an apology to victims and their families, as be began two days of evidence in front of the probe.

“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.

The four women who were removed afterwards told reporters that they stood to hold up signs that read: “The Dead can’t hear your apologies.”

Speaking outside Dorland House in west London, Kathryn Butcher, 59, who lost her sister-in-law in the pandemic, said: “We didn’t want his apology.

“When he tried to apologise we stood up. We didn’t block anybody. We were told to sit down.

“We didn’t sit down straight away. One of us stayed standing, so the rest of us came out in solidarity.”

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

Heckling continued, with former Court of Appeal judge Lady Hallett interrupting the evidence again later to urge people to ensure their behaviour is “appropriate” for a statutory public inquiry.

Mr Johnson acknowledged that “unquestionably” his Government “may have made mistakes” in handling the pandemic.

The former prime minister said: “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
Boris Johnson is questioned by lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/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.”

The only easy decision during the pandemic was to roll out the vaccines, Mr Johnson said.

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

Pressed repeatedly on why the UK had such a rate of excess deaths, he said: “Irrespective of Government action, we have an elderly population, extremely elderly population.

“We do suffer, sadly, from lots of Covid-related comorbidities and we are a very, very densely populated country.

“That did not help.”

He defended the lockdowns as “very important”, but acknowledged “there is no denying the damage that was done”.

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

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: “I’d like to express my concern about reports in the press over the last few days of the contents of Mr Johnson’s witness statement to the inquiry and what his evidence will be.

“Until a witness is called and appears at a hearing, or the inquiry publishes the witness’s statement, it’s meant to be confidential between the witness, the inquiry and the core participants.

“And I wish to remind all those involved in the inquiry process that they must maintain this confidentiality so as to allow the sharing of materials prior to hearings between those most involved in the inquiry process.

“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.