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Johnson calls partygate portrayals ‘absurd’ as he finishes Covid evidence

The former prime minister said he was not ‘reconciled’ to Covid deaths or thought it wise to ‘let it rip’ in the autumn of 2020.

Dominic McGrath
Thursday 07 December 2023 17:51 GMT
Boris Johnson faced a second day of questioning at Covid-19 inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)
Boris Johnson faced a second day of questioning at Covid-19 inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA) (PA Media)

Boris Johnson has lashed out at some of the “absolutely absurd” characterisations of the partygate debacle as he completed two days of at-times combative and emotional evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry.

The former prime minister insisted on Thursday he was not “reconciled” to Covid deaths or believed it necessary to “let it rip” in the autumn of 2020.

On the final day of his highly-anticipated appearance, he said he was “perplexed” at claims from top scientists that ministers failed to consult them on Rishi Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Much of the questioning on Thursday focused on the sequence of decision-making leading to the second national lockdown and later restrictions, while also touching on revelations of rule-breaking inside Number 10.

Mr Johnson appeared to become emotional during some of the discussions as he rejected suggestions he did not care about the suffering of the public and discussed his own admittance to intensive care.

It came as inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC pressed Mr Johnson about the lockdown-breaching parties that were held in Downing Street and the impact on public confidence.

In one WhatsApp message, dated December 17 2021, Mr Johnson told Cabinet Secretary Simon Case that “in retrospect, we all should have told people … to think about their behaviour in number ten and how it would look.

“But now we must smash on.”

The former prime minister told the inquiry: “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.

“And some of us were going to make it, some of us weren’t.

“What I am trying to tell you in a nutshell, and the NHS thank God did an amazing job and helped me survive.

“But 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.”

Mr Johnson also doubled down on his defence of the lockdown gatherings as he complained “the dramatic representations that we’re now having of this are absolutely absurd”.

He told Lady Hallett’s probe that the popularised version of events is “a million miles from the reality of what actually happened in Number 10” and the representation of civil servants and advisers was a “travesty of the truth”.

In a separate set of questioning, Mr Johnson also strongly rejected the idea he backed a so-called “let it rip” approach to the virus as the Government grappled with rising Covid cases in September 2020.

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

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, in a number of diary entries suggested that Mr Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and “obsessed with the average age of death being 82”.

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

Pointing to the “the accounts that you have culled from people’s jottings from meetings that I’ve been in,” he defended the measures taken.

“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 said the “let it rip” phrase was in “common parlance” and that he was “representing the only layperson in the meeting”.

Later, he denied that some of his language had been ageist, arguing he was doing his “best to reflect” a “live” debate.

He also told the inquiry: “I regret all hurt and offence caused by publication of language that was not intended for publication

“A lot of what has been reported is incorrect and there are words that are described to me that I simply don’t recognise.”

Elsewhere in the hearing, he said the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was not seen as a “gamble” at the time.

He claimed to be “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.

Mr Johnson said: “I am fairly confident it was discussed several times at meetings at which I believe they must have been present.

“I remember being surprised, later, I think it was in September, when Chris says ‘this is eat out to help the virus’.

Other key moments saw Mr Johnson say:

– that the tier system, introduced in a bid to stem cases of Covid-19 during the pandemic, did not work but insisted it was “worth a try”.

– that furore over Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Barnard Castle was a “bad moment”.

– that he rejected the suggestion there was a “high-handed, incommunicative approach from Westminster” in the pandemic.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is scheduled to give evidence to the inquiry next Monday.

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