Boris Johnson’s Covid charge sheet: from Partygate and flip-flopping to ‘letting it rip’

Security is beefed up at the Covid inquiry as the former PM finally faces grilling on decisions he made during pandemic

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 06 December 2023 07:04 GMT
Boris Johnson was bamboozled by the pandemic, Patrick Vallance says

Boris Johnson is expected to tell the Covid inquiry he “unquestionably made mistakes” when he begins his gruelling two-day grilling on his handling of the crisis on Wednesday.

The public inquiry’s security has been stepped up for Mr Johnson’s appearance in west London, with dozens of bereaved family members from all over Britain expected to hold a defiant vigil as he turns up to give evidence.

The former PM is expected to offer an unreserved apology at the the historic hearings’ most hotly-anticipated session, after a series of bombshell revelations about his activities in recent weeks.

Mr Johnson has been urged by opposition parties and campaigners to “tell the truth” about his own behaviour and his government’s handling of the crisis.

Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds said Mr Johnson should provide “straight answers and integrity – both of which he failed to provide in office”. And the Liberal Democrats’ Daisy Cooper said families “deserve the truth about exactly what went on behind closed doors”.

Matt Fowler, co-founder of Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, added: “Johnson will appear at the inquiry tomorrow with his claim that “he got the big calls right” already entirely debunked. We hope to see Johnson challenged on these clear falsehoods when he appears in front of the inquiry he desperately tried to avoid having tomorrow.”

But any contrition will not stop a barrage of questions. Mr Johnson will be asked about Partygate and claims he oversaw a “toxic culture” at No 10, accusations he was “weak” and dithered over lockdowns, and the tensions with key figures such as Rishi Sunak, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings.

Boris Johnson’s Partygate behaviour and ‘toxic No 10 culture’

The former PM is expected to apologise, but it remains to be seen what exactly he will apologise for. Mr Johnson was utterly defiant over Partygate during his grilling by the privileges committee hearing in the summer – defending leaving dos as “essential for work purposes”.

Mr Johnson, fined for attending his own birthday party in June 2020, also told MPs that: “People who say that we were partying in lockdown simply do not know what they are talking about.” He may be asked what impact Partygate and associated scandals – such as Mr Hancock’s kiss and the Barnard Castle saga – had on public compliance with the rules.

Helen McNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, told the inquiry it would be “hard to pick one day” when Covid regulations were followed at No 10. She also said Mr Johnson oversaw a “toxic culture” – claiming there was “sexist treatment” of women at meetings.

In WhatsApp messages, cabinet secretary Simon Case said dealing with Mr Johnson’s team during the Covid crisis was “basically feral” and dealing them was like “taming wild animals”.

Boris Johnson faces two-day grilling at Covid inquiry

Claims Boris said ‘let the bodies pile high’ and old people must ‘accept their fate’

Mr Cummings has claimed that he heard Mr Johnson say he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than sanction a second lockdown in the autumn of 2020 – an accusation Mr Johnson has already denied.

There are other remarks it may not be easy for the former Tory leader to evade. Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said Mr Johnson suggested in August 2020 that Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people” and that people “accept their fate”.

Sir Patrick’s diary reveals that Mr Johnson started an October 2020 meeting by arguing for “letting it all rip” – accepting there would be more casualties and adding: “They have had a good innings.”

Boris Johnson pictured with his ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings

Questions on whether he or Dominic Cummings made key decisions

Mr Johnson will have to explain why Mr Cummings was apparently handed so much power. Former cabinet minister Sajid Javid told the inquiry that Mr Johnson was “not in charge of what was happening” and was largely happy with Mr Cummings “running the government”.

Mr Javid said the top No 10 strategist “would not stop until he had burnt the house down”. Matt Hancock also described Mr Cummings as “malign actor” that created a “culture of fear” across government.

Mr Johnson will be grilled on his relationship with Mr Cummings, whether he allowed him to create a “dysfunctional” culture in government, and how the pair fell out towards the end of 2020.

Key figures say ‘flip-flopper’ Boris changed his mind on lockdowns

Mr Johnson will be grilled on whether he was too slow going into the first lockdown in late March. The ex-PM was dubbed “the trolley” by Mr Cummings about claims he oscillated wildly and unhelpfully over a second lockdown in the autumn.

The ex-PM is expected to admit the government were initially too complacent to respond to the crisis. But he is set to deny claims by Mr Cummings that he was distracted by his efforts to write a book on Shakespeare in February 2020.

It remains to be seen whether he will agree with Mr Hancock’s claim that “many lives” would have been saved if the UK had gone into the first lockdown three weeks before 23 March. Mr Johnson will reportedly claim Prof Chris Whitty – the chief medical office – was “instrumental” in arguing for a delay.

The most damning evidence so far, perhaps, has come from Sir Patrick and Mr Case. The chief scientist said Mr Johnson was “flip flopping” and “all over the place” in the summer of 2020. And the nation’s top civil servant said in September 2020 that the then-PM “cannot lead”.

Boris accused of being ‘bamboozled’ by Covid science

Mr Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science and had to have key details explained to him “repeatedly”, Sir Patrick told the Covid inquiry. The then-PM struggled to understand graphs and “just could not get” some scientific concepts.

Sir Patrick wrote in his diary: “Watching the PM get his head around stats is awful. He finds relative and absolute risk almost impossible to understand.”

More important for the inquiry KC to get at is whether Mr Johnson ignore scientific advice. He will have to explain why he rejected a “circuit-breaker” lockdown in September 2020. And he could be asked what he understood by the “herd immunity” concept and whether it influenced his thinking.

Boris allegedly asked if a hairdryer up the nose would kill Covid

Mr Cummings told the Covid inquiry that Mr Johnson shared with officials a YouTube video – since taken down – of a man blowing a special hairdryer up his nose to “kill” Covid.

The ex-adviser said in his written evidence that the Mr Johnson’s circulating the hairdryer video – and asking top officials if it was true – was “a low point” amid fears he could have been giving false information to the media.

Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock both found to have broken rules

Boris’ relationship with his health secretary Matt Hancock

Mr Johnson may have wanted to keep Mr Hancock in post as health secretary as a “sacrifice” for the Covid inquiry, Mr Cummings has claimed.

The ex-adviser wanted Mr Hancock sacked and told the then-PM in May 2020: “There’s no way the guy can stay. He’s lied his way through this and killed people and dozens and dozens of people have seen it.”

But Mr Johnson will offer support for Mr Hancock at the inquiry, according to The Times, and will insist his old colleague was doing “a good job in very difficult circumstances”.

Questions on whether Eat Out to Help Out fuelled Covid’s spread

Mr Johnson will no doubt be asked about his relationship with Mr Sunak, and the then-chancellor’s controversial Eat Out to Help Out scheme in the late summer of 20202.

Prof Whitty dubbed it “Eat out to help out the virus”, while Mr Hancock said he kept his own concerns about the scheme to boost the restaurant trade out of the news because he believed in a “team effort”.

Despite their later bitter fall-out over Mr Sunak’s resignation and leadership push, the two top government figures do not appear to have been regularly at odds on Covid policy.

They both appear to have had reservations about a second lockdown. According to Sir Patrick, at the October 2020 meeting in Mr Johnson argued for “letting it all rip”, Mr Cummings claimed that “Rishi thinks just let people die and that’s okay”.

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