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Boris Johnson Denies His Approach To Covid-19 Was "Let It Rip"

Boris Johnson gave evidence to the Covid Inquiry for the second day (Alamy)

6 min read

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has denied ever saying government's approach to the pandemic should be “let it rip” and allow Covid-19 to kill older and more clinically vulnerable people.

Johnson is giving his second day of evidence to the Covid Inquiry. On Wednesday, he blamed a "default mindset" that Covid would follow the same pattern as SARS and swine flu, that had been largely "benign" in the UK, for the government’s slow response to bring in measures to prevent the virus spreading in the early months of the pandemic. 

On Thursday, Johnson was quizzed by the Inquiry’s lawyer Hugo Keith KC on his comments that the government should “let it rip” and suggestions that elderly people who were more likely to die from Covid-19 had “had a good innings”. These comments were recorded by former scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance in his diaries from the time. 

Asked whether these comments represented his view, Johnson told the Inquiry that “there were plenty of people who had used that phrasing in conversation with me” and claimed this view was widespread and he was “representing” that.

He denied that ever actually wanted to “let it rip”, saying that he “wanted to save lives at all ages” and that the Inquiry should look at what he “actually did”.

“It does not do justice to what we did, our thoughts, our 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,” he said.

“I had to challenge the consensus in the meetings.”

Covid Inquiry evidence
Evidence from Sir Patrick Vallance's notebooks shown to the Covid Inquiry (UK Covid Inquiry)

The former prime minister was challenged on the various 'partygate' scandals which revealed him and other top ministers and civil servants breaking government-imposed rules. One of the events in question was Johnson's birthday gathering in Downing Street on 19 June 2020, for which he was issued with a fixed penalty notice.

He argued that the public perception of what was happening in Downing Street was a "million miles from the reality" and that photos and videos that had circulated showing the rulebreaking were "dramatic representations".

Asked about whether the Barnard Castle incident involving former government adviser Dominic Cummings had affected public confidence, Johnson said: "It was a bad moment, I won't pretend otherwise."

Johnson appeared to get emotional when he insisted he "did care" deeply about the suffering of victims and families and had encountered first hand the suffering inflicted by the virus.

"I just want to remind you that when I went into intensive care I saw around me a lot of people who were not actually elderly... they were middle aged men and they were quite like me," he said, recounting when he had been in ICU himself having contracted Covid in 2020.

"Some of us were going to make it and some of us weren't. I knew from that experience what an appalling disease this is... I had absolutely no personal doubt about that from March onwards. To say that I didn't care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right."

As the afternoon went on, Johnson was asked by various lawyers representing bereaved families from the devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, as well as representatives of the ethnic minority healthcare organisations, long Covid groups, and children's rights and disabled people's advocates.

Asked by Leslie Thomas KC on what specific measures the government put in place to minimise the impact that Covid-19 had on disparities experienced by ethnic minority groups, Johnson said "we worked incredibly hard", but did not outline any specific measures targetted towards supporting these groups once it was determined that they had faced greater impacts from the virus.

Johnson said he was not sure he could agree with Thomas that the disproportionate death rate among such groups was due to "institutional racism" in the health service, but said he had not seen the Public Health England report which had came to this conclusion.

Johnson was also asked about the ineffectiveness of the tier system of restrictions in late 2020, which introduced varying levels of lockdowns and social distancing measures in different regions across the country, but had little effect in slowing the rate of transmission going into the winter.

The former prime minister admitted to the Inquiry that tier system restrictions didn’t work but said they were “worth a try” and that at the time, “a lot of people thought the same”.

He claimed that advisers were saying a regional approach at that point was “reasonable” in late 2020 to “crush the virus where it was most prevalent”, but said it was a challenge to get local leaders to put in restrictions “fast enough” and suggested that if they and been able to get restrictions in place “harder and faster” it might have had a positive impact.

Regional leaders previously told the Inquiry that they had felt left out of vital meetings and decision making processes.

Lawyers representing the devolved nations challenged the former prime on whether the UK government had contributed to "confused" messaging around restrictions when in May 2020, they had shifted from the message of "stay at home" to "stay alert" – while the devolved nations chose to retain the "stay at home" slogan.

"It was hard to get a message that everybody could agree upon," Johnson conceded. 

"This is a perfect example of the difficulty we had... It would have been better to have had a unified approach."

However, Johnson did not outline what he could have done as prime minister at the time to avoid this confusion, other than saying a "different approach" would be needed in the future.

Another controversial decision by the UK government was the idea to implement the Eat Out To Help Out scheme in Summer 2020, to encourage businesses to reopen and for customers to return to hospitality venues.

Vallance told the Inquiry last month that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was "highly likely" to have increased Covid deaths in the UK and that easing indoor hospitality restrictions was at the “top end of the risk boundary”.

However, Johnson said that at the time, he had not deemed it to be a “particular gamble” and it had not been presented to him as such.

Keith then asked whether scientists had been kept suitably informed regarding this scheme. 

Johnson’s statement to the Inquiry said it had been “properly discussed” with scientific advisers, but previous evidence showed that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty had referred to it as 'Eat out to help out the virus'.

Johnson appeared to row back on this claim, and said he had “assumed” scientists had been consulted.

“I assumed it must have been discussed with them and I am perplexed as to how something as significant as that could have got through,” he said, unable to answer with certainty whether scientific advisers had been in meetings between him and the Chancellor and Treasury about the scheme. 

“There must have been several meetings in which it was discussed.”

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