Former PM Boris Johnson to Defend Record and Conduct at UK COVID Inquiry


LONDON (Reuters) – Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will make a much-anticipated appearance before an inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday with his personal reputation and that of the Conservative government at stake.

The inquiry has already heard damaging testimony about Johnson’s handling of the crisis, including claims of government incompetence, backstabbing and misogyny, his reluctance to lock down, and how he was confused by the science. He was said to have asked at one point if blowing a hair-dryer up his nose could kill the virus.

Johnson will face two days of questioning in what are likely to be the most emotionally charged sessions of the official investigation so far into why Britain ended up with one of the world’s highest death tolls during the pandemic.

Families of some of those who died from COVID-19 plan to confront Johnson outside the inquiry building over claims that he told colleagues he would prefer to see people die in large numbers rather than order a second lockdown.

The testimony could also be embarrassing for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister at the time, with previous evidence shown to the inquiry describing how, like Johnson, he reportedly favoured letting people die rather than ordering another lockdown over fears for the economy.

The pandemic killed more than 230,000 people in Britain and infected many millions more.

Johnson, prime minister for three years between 2019 and 2022, resigned in disgrace after reports that he, and other officials, had been present at alcohol-fuelled gatherings in Downing Street during 2020 and 2021 when most people in Britain were forced to stay at home.

Some Conservatives leaders fear the inquiry will further dent support for the governing Conservatives, who are already heavily trailing the opposition Labour Party in polls in the run-up to an election expected next year.

The public inquiry is examining the government’s response to the virus that shut large parts of the economy.

The inquiry is assessing decision-making through written and oral evidence from former and current ministers and officials. It has also been given access to private messages they exchanged in the run-up to, and at the height of, the crisis.

Although Johnson has give evidence to parliament before about how he managed the pandemic, he is expected to provide the most detailed public account about his decision making in 12 hours of questioning over two days.

The inquiry has seen evidence from the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, who wrote in his diary in Oct. 2020 that Johnson wanted to let the virus spread rather than order another lockdown despite warnings that many older people would die.

The extract said: “PM meeting – begins to argue for letting it all rip. Saying yes there will be more casualties but so be it – “they have had a good innings'”.

The same entry quoted Johnson as saying: “Most people who die have reached their time anyway.”

Other senior advisers including Dominic Cummings and Eddie Lister claim Johnson also said “let the bodies pile high” following a meeting about imposing another lockdown.

Johnson has denied making those comments. He is likely to be questioned about the alleged comments when he gives evidence.

Testimonies in recent weeks have also heard how Johnson struggled to make decisions at key moments in the crisis, including when to impose curbs on the public’s movements.

His former head of communications, Lee Cain, said in his evidence that the pandemic was the wrong crisis for Johnson’s “skillset” in part because he would “take a decision from the last person in the room”.

In private messages seen by the inquiry, Simon Case, Britain’s most senior civil servant, claimed in private messages that his boss changed “strategic direction every day” and he was unable to lead.

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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