Since Dominic Cummings made a splash at the Covid Inquiry a few weeks ago, the proceedings have gone under the radar – bad news hidden under the terrible conflict in Gaza. But the inquiry came into the limelight again with Boris Johnson’s long-awaited appearance, which I followed in detail over two days, consulting my own diary which I wrote during those unprecedented times of Covid.
In June 2023, then Prime Minister Johnson was found in contempt of parliament for claiming that “all guidance was followed completely in No.10”, so it was hard to believe a word he said to the inquiry. His performance was shambolic and his supposed contrition utterly unconvincing, despite lengthy preparation by his legal team.
Is Johnson really sorry?
Waiting with banners were representatives of bereaved families, long-Covid and disability groups, who made their feelings known loudly outside and inside the hearing. Johnson’s prepared apology, saying he was “deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering”, felt rehearsed rather than genuine. To the demonstrators, this was clearly not going to be enough. Four protesters, holding signs such as “The dead can’t hear your apologies”, were removed from the inquiry room.
Johnson also claimed to regret describing long Covid as “bollocks” and “Gulf War syndrome stuff”, but charities representing sufferers of the condition claim that he “only apologised because he got found out”. Even when Johnson appeared to become tearful when talking about “tragic, tragic 2020”, it was hard to believe that the emotion extended beyond his own self-pity.
Does Johnson have a poor memory?
Johnson’s evidence was characterised by his apparent (convenient) inability to remember many important details about events or meetings. “I don’t recall” and “I don’t remember” were the responses to many questions.
For example, he was rebuked by leading counsel Hugo Keith for the missing 5,000 WhatsApp messages between January and June 2020, but Johnson claimed not to know how this had happened and his ‘explanation’ of the technology was ludicrous.
Johnson also maintained not to have been told that he shouldn’t shake hands at the Royal Free Hospital on 1 March 2020, after boasting that he had done so at the time – yet my 2020 diary from that week shows it was common knowledge: “People stop shaking hands”, I wrote.
Is Johnson a poor leader?
Earlier in the inquiry, ex-director of communications, Lee Cains, said Johnson had the “wrong skill set” to lead the country through the Covid crisis: his constant indecision, delays and changes of mind were “difficult to defend”. Similarly, former chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, described Johnson as “bamboozled” by the science, “weak” and “confused”.
Johnson conceded that he “should have twigged” sooner how serious Covid was in early 2020, but this flies in the face of evidence that was commonly known about the spread of Covid through Europe. In early March 2020, I noted in my diary that Italy was “quarantined”, Spain and Poland were “closed”, and “Coronavirus taking off in UK”, weeks before the first UK lockdown was announced. It might have helped if he had attended early Cobra (emergency response committee) meetings.
When Keith pressed Johnson on why he had delayed the first lockdown – “This is a poor example of executive function. You could not make up your own mind” – Johnson rejected this, asserting, “I had to go through the arguments.” He was also ready to blame others, claiming that Sage’s (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) “modelling had been incorrect” and he had been advised not to lockdown too early. Explaining why he finally announced the first lockdown – “We’d run out of wiggle room” – just compounded the sense of lack of leadership.
Boris Johnson in denial
Despite fierce questioning, Johnson “struggled to name a single mistake” his government had made, instead stating that excess Covid deaths were due to an ageing population. He conceded that he took “personal responsibility for all the decisions we made”, but would not be drawn on specific mistakes.
Johnson also denied that No.10 had been a “toxic” place to work, claiming that it was “creatively useful” to have vociferous exchanges. He refuted being “shamefully ageist” against the elderly, although he did apologise for not tackling the “misogynistic language” used by Dominic Cummings.
In addition, Johnson insisted that he did not support a “let it rip” strategy as cases began to rise again in autumn 2020, despite claims in notes by advisers and Vallance. Again, this looks counter to the evidence. Looking at my diary for September and early October 2020, I noted: “Cases continue to rise – doubling each week” and “Testing chaos”. By mid-October, I wrote: “Sage and Labour ask for total lockdown…Shit’s beginning to hit fans”; but it wasn’t until 5 November that a second lockdown was imposed.
Boris Johnson’s legacy?
Johnson left the inquiry hearings to cries of “Shame” from protesters, who did not accept his apologies. Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for UK Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said the evidence heard had been: “worse than what the bereaved families feared was happening at the time…Johnson may try to bluster and justify his decisions, but the proof is irrefutable.”
Although I didn’t lose anyone during the pandemic, there were serious impacts on my family due to bad decisions made by the government at the time, which I re-lived looking through my diaries. I agree wholeheartedly with Akinnola’s judgement that: “Everyone in the country has, in some way, been let down by Johnson’s handling of Covid-19.”