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The 10 key takeaways from Boris Johnson’s Covid inquiry witness statement

Hugo Keith KC among those grilling former PM at Dorland House in London on Wednesday and Thursday

Tara Cobham
Friday 08 December 2023 18:49 GMT
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Boris Johnson shown all the times he said ‘let Covid rip’ in uncomfortable inquiry moment

Boris Johnson delivered two days of highly-charged Covid testimony this week – at times ranging from the defiant, to the damning, to the downright absurd.

The highly-anticipated appearance at the official inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic forced the former prime minister to face up to his administration’s failings during the crisis.

Several striking revelations came in the marathon evidence sessions, including the 5,000 missing WhatsApp messages on his phone ranging from January 30, 2020 to June 2020.

Now, the former prime minister’s 233-page witness statement has been published in full.

Below, The Independent takes a look at 10 key takeaways from his statement.

Britain’s former Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, in west London, on Thursday (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/AFP via Gett)

‘No consideration’ to testing patients before moved to care homes

Mr Johnson admitted to “not remember any specific consideration” being given to the question of testing hospital patients before they were discharged to care homes in March 2020.

NHS England figures showed that 25,060 patients were moved from hospitals to care homes between 17 March and 16 April. It was not until 15 April that the health secretary announced the plan to test all patients before they were admitted to a care home.

By that stage, there had already been more than 3,000 Covid deaths in care homes, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Mr Johnson argued in his witness statement that his aim with the discharge policy was to free up hospital beds.

He admitted that, with hindsight, “it is clear” the government “underestimated the risks” of infection, including asymptomatic.

High Court judges in April ruled that discharging Covid patients to care homes without testing them was unlawful.

Mr Johnson complained ‘people not obeying rules’ amid Partygate

Mr Johnson remarkably complained that “people were not obeying the guidelines” in January 2021, just months before the Partygate scandal broke.

Unlawful parties happened at Downing Street between November 2021 and May 2022, events that receive little mention in Mr Johnson’s 233-page statement.

However, he does take time to blame people for not following coronavirus rules and subsequently “penalising” the economy and children.

He separately added: “I am not aware that media accounts of lockdown breaches by advisers, officials or ministers had any material impact on observance of the rules or guidance at the time.”

‘Chickenpox parties’ proposed by Mr Sedwill to tackle Covid

Former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill extraordinarily suggested Mr Johnson should encourage people to hold “chickenpox parties” during the pandemic.

The former prime minister described the remark as a “passing” comment to a small group in his office, which was part of a “free-flowing discussion” and was “immediately dispensed with”.

The idea was raised in the group’s attempts to “allow the vast majority of younger people to get the disease (and therefore become immune) while protecting the elderly”, said Mr Johnson in his witness statement.

Mr Sedwill previously apologised to families of victims at the Covid inquiry and accepted his comments could have come across as “both heartless and thoughtless”.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson leaves Dorland House in London after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (PA Wire)

Lockdown ‘should not have been imposed earlier’

Mr Johnson described the decision to impose a national lockdown in March 2020 as “probably timely”, adding: “I do not believe it should have been made earlier.”

However, he admitted the “possibility” that earlier interventions could have been introduced and therefore averted the need for a national lockdown, although he thought this “highly unlikely”.

The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Dame Angela McLean, previously told the Covid inquiry that, with “the benefit of hindsight”, the first national lockdown on 23 March 2020 “should have been two weeks earlier” and “would have made a really huge difference”.

‘No public health benefit to closing borders,’ insists Mr Johnson

Mr Johnson insisted that the albeit “popular” decision to close borders at the start of the pandemic “would have had no public health benefit”.

Instead, he argued the move would have damaged the economy and the UK’s supply chains “at the very moment when we needed to start protecting them”.

In August 2020, the Commons Home Affairs Committee concluded the fateful decision was “a serious mistake that significantly increased both the pace and the scale of the epidemic in the UK, and meant that many more people caught Covid-19”.

Mr Johnson added in his statement that the move later became a source of “friction” between central government and the devolved administrations.

Tier system failed, admits Mr Johnson

Mr Johnson did admit in his statement that his tiered local lockdown system was a failure.

He said, “With the benefit of hindsight, I do not now think that local measures were the correct approach,” adding that his major takeaway from the pandemic was of the necessity of a UK-wide approach.

He added that this was one of the areas that highlighted the breakdown in communication between central government and the regional and local authorities.

Mr Johnson ‘going quietly crackers’ over testing

Mr Johnson told the health secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, that he was “going quietly crackers” over the failure to expand testing fast enough.

The former prime minister noted in his witness statement that, while he said he had not personally seen the messages, he understood he had shared his frustrations with Mr Hancock in messages sent on 4 June 2020.

Mr Johnson said, according to Mr Hancock, he described testing as the government’s “Achilles heel” and asked: “What is wrong with this country that we can't fix this?”

Mr Hancock was said to have reassured him that the UK at the time had the “biggest testing capacity in Europe” in his response.

Chair of Covid-19 Inquiry Baroness Heather Carol Hallett leaves Dorland House in London after former prime minister Boris Johnson gave evidence (PA)

Ex-PM denies volunteering to be injected with Covid on TV

In a series of testy exchanges, the former prime minister denied the suggestion that he had volunteered to be injected with coronavirus live on TV around March 2020.

His former chief of staff in Downing Street, Lord Edward Udny-Lister, previously told the Covid inquiry that the “unfortunate comment” had been made by Mr Johnson, confirming the reports first made in 2021.

In his witness statement, Mr Johnson wrote: “I reject and attach little credence to the source of that account.”

Mr Johnson backs Matt Hancock

In a move that was anticipated, Mr Johnson backed his health secretary at the time, Mr Hancock.

He states in his witness statement: “I did not have any concerns regarding the performance of any Cabinet Minister, including Matt Hancock, in relation to the Covid-19 response between January 2020 and February 2022.”

Despite Dominic Cummings’ claimed “hostilities” towards Mr Hancock and urges to fire the former health secretary, Mr Johnson said thought Mr Hancock “was doing a good job in very difficult circumstances” and decided to keep him in post.

Ex-PM defends not chairing early pandemic Cobra meetings

The former prime minister defended the decision for him to not chair the Cobra meetings held at the start of the pandemic.

In his statement, he noted that the first Cobra meeting to consider Covid was held on 24 January 2020, but he did not take over the role of chair until 2 March.

He argued he replaced Mr Hancock when “the seriousness of the situation became clear”.

Beforehand, he cited the Cabinet Manual as he said he was following its advice that it should be the secretary of state responsible for the issue being considered who should chair the meetings.

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