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Boris Johnson Blames "Default Mindset" For Failings In Government's Early Response To Covid-19 Pandemic

Boris Johnson started two days of evidence to the Covid Inquiry on Wednesday (UK Covid Inquiry)

5 min read

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has blamed a "default mindset" for the early assumption by government that Covid-19 would not seriously impact the UK, when questioned at the Covid Inquiry.

Johnson is giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry over a two-day period on Wednesday and Thursday, particularly around decision-making in No10 during the early months of the pandemic. 

Questioned on accusations that the government response had not been fast enough to contain the virus in the early months of the pandemic, he said there was a "default mindset" that Covid would follow the same pattern as SARS and swine flu that had been largely "benign" in the UK.

"We underestimated the scale and pace of the challenge, and you can see that very clearly in those early days in March and late February," he said.

"You can see that we were all collectively underestimating how fast it had already spread in the UK, we put the peak too late."

Johnson appeared to admit that early forecasts, which showed the potential for the virus to spread to the UK and cause many deaths, had not been taken seriously enough and not given enough "credence" by government.

"We have to put our hands up here and say because of the absence of collective memory, I don't think we were able to comprehend what we were actually looking at.

"If we had collectively stopped to think about the implications of the forecast and believed them, we might have acted differently."

He said that across government, the "klaxon of alarm" had not been loud enough.

"I'm trying to explain why that panic level hadn't been sufficiently high," he continued.

The former prime minister admitted he only looked at a key emergency scientific advice group's minutes "once or twice" during the height of the pandemic, when questioned at the Covid Inquiry.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) was the group that gathered scientific evidence in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and advised government accordingly. Johnson was asked by the Covid Inquiry whether he had read the minutes from these meetings himself or simply been informed via his advisers. 

"I think I did once or twice look at what SAGE had actually said..." Johnson replied. 

"But I think the Chief Scientific and Chief Medical Officer did an astounding job at leading SAGE and distilling their views and conveying them to me."

He also apologised to victims and the bereaved families of the Covid-19 pandemic and said he took responsibility for “all decisions made” by the government in its response.

Addressing the Inquiry, the former prime minister said: "I understand the feelings of the victims and their families and I am deeply sorry for the loss of the victims and their families.”

In his written statement to the Inquiry he wrote that the government “unquestionably made mistakes” and said that he “unreservedly” apologised for those mistakes.

“There was terrible suffering, which we did our best to alleviate, and, where we failed, I apologise again,” he continued. 

Johnson also said he took responsibility for “all decisions made” by government in terms of lockdowns, introducing tiers of restrictions, and closing businesses and schools.

“Everyone felt that we were doing our best in very difficult circumstances to protect life and protect the NHS,” he said.

He described decision-making as “incredibly difficult” at the time, but said that it had been an “easy decision” to go ahead with the rollout of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines as soon as they had been approved by the MHRA. At this comment, there were audible sounds of protest from attendees in the room. 

Johnson was also quizzed on why all the messages requested by the Inquiry from his leadership at the time were not made available, which were on an old phone which he used before May 2021. Around 5,000 WhatsApps between January 2020 and March 2020 are believed to be missing.

The former prime minister insisted he had handed over “all the relevant Whatsapps”, and that he had not "removed any Whatsapps from my phone.”

Hugo Keith KC, the lawyer questioning Johnson for the Inquiry, also asked about the accusations of a toxic environment within No10 at the time. 

He claimed that some of the messages shown as evidence were reflective of a "deep anxiety of a group of people who were doing their best" and by instinct were quite critical of each other.

Johnson said he had a preference for an adversial atmospher "with strong characters giving me advice". However, he admitted that during the pandemic, "too many meetings were too male dominated", and compared this to his time as Mayor of London.

"When I was running London it was great and it was 50/50 and it was a very harmonious team," he said

Johnson hinted that messaging around lockdowns was complicated by different approaches taken by devolved administrations across the UK.

“We were relying so much on messaging to help contain the virus, and we needed the public to understand the message as straightforwardly as possible, and they did by and large,” he said.

“The BBC would have one message from No10 and a slightly different one from Scotland or wherever, and I think we need to sort that out in future.” 

However, Johnson's own messaging on the issue was not always clear: on 1 March 2020 he openly bragged about shaking hands with Covid patients at the Royal Free Hospital in north London.

Asked by the Covid Inquiry whether he now feels that his behaviour was appropriate, Johnson said: "I do think I shouldn't have done that in retrospect.

"I should have been more precautionary, but I wanted to be encouraging to people."

Four people had to be removed from the room at the start of Wednesday’s evidence session for interrupting in protest and refusing to sit down. One of the protesters held up a sign which read: "The dead can't hear your apologies."

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