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UK COVID Inquiry: Scandal-prone Boris Johnson apologises for 'pain' and 'loss' of victims

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry shows Britain's former Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry shows Britain's former Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry Copyright AFP PHOTO / UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Copyright AFP PHOTO / UK Covid-19 Inquiry
By Saskia O'Donoghue with Agencies
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The former UK leader will speak at the ongoing inquiry on Wednesday and Thursday, following criticism from colleagues and the public on how he handled the pandemic.

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Disgraced former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has apologised for the "pain and the loss and the suffering" of the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom.

Speaking at the ongoing COVID inquiry in London, he added that he "understands the feelings of these victims and their families", repeating that he is "deeply sorry".

Adding that he remains grateful to healthcare workers and other public servants who were on the frontline during the pandemic, Johnson explained that he hopes the inquiry will get "the answers these families are rightly asking".

Johnson acknowledged that his government was too slow to grasp the scale of the crisis, although he skirted questions over whether any of his decisions had contributed to the country’s high death toll - one of the worst across the globe.

Testifying under oath at the inquiry, Johnson acknowledged that “we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge” when reports of a new virus began to emerge from China in early 2020.

The “panic level was not sufficiently high,” he admitted.

Last week, the former Health Secretary told the inquiry last week that he had tried to raise the alarm inside the government.

Matt Hancock claimed that thousands of lives could have been saved by putting the country under lockdown a few weeks earlier than the eventual date of 23 March 2020.

Britain went on to have one of Europe’s longest and strictest lockdowns. With the deaths of more than 232,000 people, it comes in at close to the top of the continent's highest death tolls

Johnson acknowledged the government had “made mistakes” but put emphasis on apparent collective failure rather than his own errors.

He claimed that ministers, civil servants and scientific advisers had failed to sound a “loud enough klaxon of alarm” about the virus.

“If we had collectively stopped to think about the mathematical implications of some of the forecasts that were being made… we might have operated differently," Johnson said.

Grilled by inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith, he acknowledged that he did not attend any of the government’s five Cobra crisis meetings on the new virus in February 2020. He admitted to looking only “once or twice” meeting minutes from the government’s scientific advisory group.

Johnson also claimed he had relied on “distilled” advice from his science and medicine advisers.

Protesters holds a placard reading "The dead can't hear your apologies" during a gathering outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry building in west London
Protesters holds a placard reading "The dead can't hear your apologies" during a gathering outside the UK Covid-19 Inquiry building in west LondonHENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty

His testimony was interrupted as 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.

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Following their removal, he admitted his government had made mistakes.

“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, adding “Inevitably, we got some things wrong”.

He did assert, however, “I think we were doing our best at the time.”

The former prime minister 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 who died after contracting the virus.

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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 read: “Johnson partied while people died.”

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.

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.

At the inquiry on Wednesday, he reiterated: “Can I, for the avoidance of doubt, make it absolutely clear I haven’t removed any WhatsApps from my phone?”.

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Wednesday marks the first day he’s expected to be questioned by the Inquiry. He will also face them on Thursday. 

The controversial leader, who resigned his post last June, will be grilled over his handling of the pandemic - as well as his government’s response.

The inquiry has so far heard and seen clear evidence of disarray inside Johnson’s cabinet, especially during the early weeks of the outbreak.

There has been public outcry, too, over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street which Johnson long denied even happened. 

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Senior officials got drunk and partied during these events, while the country was in full lockdown, with some people unable to say goodbye to dying loved ones. 

Earlier this year, a Parliament committee found that he had repeatedly and deliberately lied about breaking COVID lockdown rules.

FILE - Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street, London, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.
FILE - Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street, London, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.Jack Hill/AP

In a damning 30,000-word paper, the body said his denials were “so disingenuous that they were deliberate attempts to mislead the Committee", also referring to the "frequency with which he closed his mind to the truth."

As a result, he stepped down with immediate effect as an MP and Johnson, his wife Carrie and now Prime Minister - then Chancellor - Rishi Sunak among more than 100 staff fined by police.

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At the COVID Inquiry, Johnson is likely to be asked to explain why he initially tried to play down the threat posed by the deadly virus. He’ll also face questions over whether he failed to chair Cobra meetings coordinating the government’s response early on in the pandemic.

The Inquiry has already heard several pieces of damning evidence against the former PM.

One particularly condemnatory example came from chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance. In a diary entry written on 19 September 2020, he wrote: ”[Johnson] is all over the place and so completely inconsistent. You can see why it was so difficult to get agreement to lock down the first time.”

Speaking in front of the Inquiry panel in November, Vallance also claimed that Johnson had been “bamboozled” by the myriad scientific evidence about the pandemic.

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Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, had similar criticisms.

In written evidence presented to the inquiry, he claimed that, at the start of 2020, Johnson was distracted by “financial problems”, his divorce and pressure from his then-girlfriend Carrie wanted to “finalise the announcement of their engagement”.

Early that year, Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications sent a message to Cummings asserting that the PM “doesn’t think [COVID] is a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere”.

“He thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is taking the economy into a slump,” Cain added.

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Rishi Sunak is also expected to give evidence later in December.

The inquiry will not find any individual guilty of a crime. It aims to take lessons away from how the crisis was handled and how the UK could put in place preparation for a similar event in the future.

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