Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his handling of COVID-19 on Wednesday at a public inquiry into the pandemic, saying his government “got some things wrong” but did its best.
Johnson began two days of questioning under oath by lawyers for the judge-led inquiry about his initial reluctance to impose a national lockdown in early 2020 and other fateful decisions.
Johnson opened his testimony with an apology “for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the COVID victims,” though not for any of his own actions. Four people stood up in court as he spoke, holding signs saying: “The Dead can’t hear your apologies,” before being escorted out by security staff.
“Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes,” Johnson said. “Inevitably, we got some things wrong. I think we were doing our best at the time.”
Johnson had arrived at the inquiry venue at daybreak, several hours before he was due to take the stand, avoiding a protest by relatives of some of those victims.
Among those wanting answers from the inquiry are families of some of the more than 230,000 people in the U.K. who died after contracting the virus. A group gathered outside the office building where the inquiry was set, some holding pictures of their loved ones. A banner declared: “Let the bodies pile high” — a statement attributed to Johnson by an aide. Another sign said: “Johnson partied while people died.”
Johnson was pushed out of office by his own Conservative Party in mid-2022 after multiple ethics scandals, including the revelation that he and staff members held parties in the prime minister’s Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021, flouting the government’s lockdown restrictions.
Former colleagues, aides and advisers have painted an unflattering picture of Johnson and his government over weeks of testimony.
Former Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said Johnson was “bamboozled” by science. In diaries that have been seen as evidence, Vallance also said Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate.” Former adviser Dominic Cummings, now a fierce opponent of Johnson, said the then-prime minister asked scientists whether blowing a hair dryer up his nose could kill the virus.
Former senior civil servant Helen McNamara described a “toxic,” macho culture inside Johnson’s government, and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the country’s top civil servant, called Johnson and his inner circle “basically feral.”
Johnson defended his government, saying it contained “challenging” characters “whose views about each other might not be fit to print, but who got an awful lot done.”
The U.K. has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
Johnson said he was “not sure” whether his government’s decisions had caused excess deaths. He said deciding when to impose lockdowns and other restrictions had been “painful.”
“People point, quite rightly, to the loss of education, the economic damage, the missed cancer and cardiac appointments, and all the other costs,” he said. “When it came to the balance of the need to protect the public and protect the (health service), and the damage done by lockdowns, it was incredibly difficult.”
Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families. The probe, led by retired Judge Heather Hallett, is expected to take three years to complete, though interim reports will be issued starting next year.
The inquiry is divided into four sections, with the current phase focusing on political decision-making. The first stage, which concluded in July, looked at the country’s preparedness for the pandemic.
Johnson has submitted a written evidence statement to the inquiry but has not handed over some 5,000 WhatsApp messages from several key weeks between February and June 2020. They were on a phone Johnson was told to stop using when it emerged that the number had been publicly available online for years. Johnson later said he’d forgotten the password to unlock it.
A Johnson spokesman said the former prime minister had not deleted any messages but a “technical issue” meant some had not been recovered.