LONDON - Boris Johnson, who was pushed out as prime minister for misleading the public over raucous parties at 10 Downing Street during covid lockdowns, defended his overall response to the pandemic in testimony on Wednesday before an independent inquiry.
Johnson largely refrained from his usual bombast and began by saying “how sorry I am for the pain and the loss and the suffering.”
Mistakes were “unquestionably” made, Johnson said, but he maintained that his government had given careful consideration to the evidence available at the time. He said he did his “level best” under extraordinary circumstances.
Britain had the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe, and the inquiry’s lawyer, Hugo Keith, pressed that more than 230,000 deaths was extraordinary. “By any measure that is a shocking loss of life,” Keith said.
Johnson acknowledged that number was “an important marker.” But he pushed back, arguing that Britain was lower in comparisons of “excess deaths” in Europe. He said factors such as Britain’s elderly population were what made the country vulnerable.
The lawyer recalled that Johnson had said in early 2020 that the “U.K. is well prepared” and “plans are in place,” when evidence suggests plans were not in place.
The lawyer asked Johnson why he boasted of shaking the hands of patients at the Royal Free Hospital in London just a few weeks before the first lockdown.
“I do think I shouldn’t have done that in retrospect,” Johnson answered. “I should have been more precautionary, but I wanted to be encouraging to people.”
He said he feared Britons would rebel against lockdowns in the early days “without a vaccination program or any other way out.”
Many members of Johnson’s Conservative Party - and its Tory columnists - now assert there should have been no lockdowns at all.
Johnson’s rebuttals come after testimony from his top advisers who described him as an out-of-control “shopping trolley” weaving one way then the other down the aisle; a man who could not focus; who did not read even the shortest scientific summaries; who imagined aloud about miracle cures; who presided over a cabinet of chaos - where backstabbing male aides were actively savaging their bosses in bitter WhatsApp threads, filled with profane invective and misogynistic insult.
Johnson’s former communications director Lee Cain earlier told the inquiry: “I think anyone that’s worked with the prime minister for a period of time will become exhausted with him.”
Johnson’s former top aide, Dominic Cummings, who always saw himself as the smartest one in the room, poured on the scorn, “Pretty much everybody called him the trolley.”
Johnson’s vibe on Wednesday was contrition. He made no jokes. Spoke no Latin. He did not counterattack.
At one point he appeared to become emotional, his voice breaking when he said, “We have to be realistic about 2020 - the whole year - that whole tragic, tragic year.”
As Johnson began his remarks, several people in the audience held signs reading, “The dead can’t hear your apologies.” Four women were ushered out of the room.
Outside, anti-vaccine protesters honked their car horns with a message of “beep for freedom.”
With elections looming next year, and after 13 years in power, Johnson’s Conservative Party is fearful it will be voted out because of perceived lack of competence.
Johnson was pushed out by his own lawmakers last year for his serial disassembling over “Partygate,” as well as his handling of personnel scandals. As Jeremy Hunt, the current finance minister, put it, Johnson wasn’t offering “integrity, competence and vision.”
Johnson was replaced by Liz Truss, the shortest-serving British prime minister in history, who sent the country skidding into the economic ditch after pushing sweeping but unfunded tax cuts.
The current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is also facing tough questions for his performance, as finance minister, or chancellor of the exchequer, during the pandemic.
In August of 2020, Sunak launched his “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign, which saw the government underwrite the cost of meals to lure a virus-spooked public back to pubs and restaurants. Many people took Sunak up on the offer - and many researchers blame the program for stoking the ensuing spike in covid cases.
On Wednesday, Johnson was asked why he didn’t attend any emergency cabinet meetings in January and February 2020 - when the virus was raging in China and beginning to circulate around the world.
Johnson said that in that period, “covid was pretty much like a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand, and you didn’t know whether it was going to turn into a typhoon or not.”
The former prime minister said: “If we had collectively stopped to think about the mathematical implications of some of the forecasts that were being made, and we’d believed them, we might have operated differently. The problem was that I don’t think we attached enough credence to those forecasts.”