'The dead won't hear your apologies': Bereaved families reject Boris Johnson's Covid 'sorry'

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared before the Covid-19 Inquiry to defend his government's decision-making during the pandemic, ITV News' Political Editor Robert Peston reports

Boris Johnson expressed "how sorry" he is for the "loss and the suffering" of Covid victims, while his apology was rejected by families who said "the dead won't hear your apologies".

On the first of two days of evidence at the Covid-19 Inquiry, the former prime minister said he looks back "in horror" while admitting his government seemed "oblivious" to the severity of the virus in February 2020.

We "inevitably" made mistakes, he admitted, before stressing he did his "level best" and accepts full personal responsibility for every decision that was made.

The ex-PM didn't deny asking then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak why they were "damaging [the] economy for people who will die anyway soon", labelling his language "an indication of the cruelty of the choice that we faced" during the pandemic.

Mr Johnson, whose premiership in Number 10 was defined by coronavirus, is facing a mammoth 48-hour evidence session, where he faces claims that he was slow to impose lockdowns, was "bamboozled" by the science and wanted to "let the bodies pile high".

Wednesday's key moments

  • Chair of the Inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallet, said media leaks ahead of Boris Johnson's appearance undermined its effectiveness

  • Mr Johnson's opening apology was interrupted by four people who had to be removed

  • The former PM admitted his government 'inevitably' made 'mistakes', and said he takes full personal responsibility for every decision that was made

  • He only looked at SAGE meeting notes 'once or twice', relying on advice from advisers

  • He denied claims that explicit texts and 'feuding' between officials hampered decision-making in Number 10

  • The government 'was not as alarmed as we should have been', Mr Johnson admitted, in January and February 2020

  • The ex-PM admitted he looks back 'in horror' as he accepted the government appeared 'oblivious' to the severity of the virus when it was taking hold in Italy in February 2020

  • In hindsight, Mr Johnson admitted he should have cancelled mass gatherings earlier

  • He didn't deny asking then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak why they were 'damaging [the] economy for people who will die anyway soon'

  • He admitted that he'd thought about sacking Matt Hancock as health secretary, but he couldn't be sure he'd be 'trading up' by appointing someone else

Chair of the Inquiry, Baroness Heather Hallet, opened on Wednesday with a complaint about briefings to the media ahead of Mr Johnson's appearance, which she said undermine her forensic four-year investigation.

"Failing to respect confidentiality undermines the inquiry’s ability to do its job fairly, effectively and independently," Mr Hallet said as she addressed the Inquiry.

Mr Johnson's appearance is the most hotly anticipated of the probe so far, and was met with a significant presence from protesters representing Covid victims on Wednesday morning.

The former prime minister was interrupted by individuals in the gallery as he delivered an apology in the opening minutes of his evidence session.

"Can I just say how glad I am to be at this inquiry and how sorry I am for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the Covid victims," Mr Johnson said before he was cut short.

After being escorted outside of the Inquiry in London, the four individuals who were removed held up signs labelled: "The dead can't hear your apologies".

They later told ITV News Mr Johnson's apology was "insincere" and can't make up for the suffering endured by bereaved families.

Mr Johnson is sitting for two days of evidence as part of the Inquiry's second module, which is focusing on UK decision-making and political governance.

(left to right) Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and former PM Boris Johnson. Credit: PA

Questioned by lead counsel to the Inquiry Hugo Keith KC, Boris Johnson acknowledged his government "inevitably" made "mistakes” in its handling of the pandemic, and the "Whitehall mind" wasn't awake enough to early warnings that Covid "will sweep the world". "So many people suffered, so many people lost their lives," Mr Johnson said. "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.” He said “inevitably we got some things wrong” but “I think we were doing our best at the time, given what we knew, given the information I had available to me at the time, I think we did our level best." “Were there things that we should have done differently? Unquestionably."

"I certainly would accept that my mindset, like the mindset of, I think, the overwhelming majority of the ministers and officials on Whitehall in that period, Jan to mid-Feb, was not as alarmed as we should have been," he later told Mr Keith.

Boris Johnson admits his government 'inevitably' got 'some things wrong' in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic

Leading up to his appearance on Wednesday, the former prime minister was subject to several explosive claims, not least that he oversaw a "toxic" culture in Downing Street that hampered his government's ability to respond to the pandemic.

Former officials, including Helen MacNamara and Lord Mark Sedwill, have both identified the pandemic culture in Number 10 as "feral" and "toxic".

Mr Johnson repeatedly tried to defend the claims of a problematic Downing Street culture, saying: "I knew that some people were difficult – I didn’t know how difficult they were, clearly. "But I thought it was better on the whole for the country to have a disputatious culture in No 10 than one that was quietly acquiescent to whatever I, or the scientists, said."

He insisted he'd never been told about the "toxicity, misogyny and perpetual internecine warfare" inside Number 10, adding that he wanted people to be able to "speak their minds".

The Inquiry has previously seen evidence alleging Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson's former chief adviser, used misogynistic language when talking about Ms MacNamara in text messages. "If I have to come back to Helen’s bulls*** with [propriety and ethics team] – designed to waste huge amounts of my time so I can’t spend it on other stuff – I will personally handcuff her and escort her from the building," Mr Cummings said in 2020. "I don’t care how it’s done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c***."

Questioned on his failure to address the comments when they were made, Mr Johnson told the Inquiry on Wednesday that "he must have seen it at the time" and has "apologised" to Ms McNamara for not calling them out when they were made.

Mr Johnson went onto deny knowledge of particularly expletive WhatsApp messages between Number 10 officials, especially in response to allegations that the language used represented a dysfunctional team at the heart of government.

He was presented with more messages sent to him by Mr Cummings in May 2020, in which Mr Cummings described former Health Secretary Mat Hancock as being "unfit" for the job.

"Hancock is unfit for this job. The incompetence, the constant lies, the obsession with media b******t", he said. He added: "Still no f****ing serious testing in care homes".

On the documented criticism of Mr Hancock, Mr Johnson said: “The country as a whole had notable achievements during the crisis. My job was to try to get a load of quite disparate, quite challenging characters to keep going and through a long period and to keep doing their level best to protect the country. That was my job.”

ITV News Political Correspondent Romilly Weeks previews the key questions that Boris Johnson is likely to be asked during his appearance before the Covid-19 inquiry

Boris Johnson also told the Covid-19 Inquiry that social restrictions were not imposed earlier owing to “the issues that were raised by going hard, going early”. He described how this "later became the mantra", but in March 2020 there were concerns about people getting fed up with restrictions. He said he was "told repeatedly" by his chief scientific and chief medical advisers that "you risked bounce back and behavioural fatigue and yet more behavioural fatigue as a consequence of bounce back”.

Mr Johnson admitted he should have cancelled mass gatherings earlier, including the Cheltenham Festival that went ahead from March 10, 2020.

"With hindsight, as a symbol of government earnestness rather than just being guided by the science, we should perhaps have done that," he told the Inquiry.

According to previous witnesses, Mr Johnson was often "bamboozled" by the science, didn't think Covid was "a big deal", and believed Covid was "nature's way of dealing with old people".

Mr Johnson's aide during the pandemic, Lord Edward Lister, said his boss "would rather let the bodies pile high than impose another lockdown" - a phrase Mr Johnson denies using.

Meanwhile, extracts from the diaries of former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, also shown to the Inquiry, suggest that Mr Johnson wanted to let Covid "rip".

It is likely that Mr Johnson, as part of his continued evidence on Thursday, will point to his pandemic successes - especially the rollout of the vaccine and ending the third lockdown when he did.

He has been fiercely criticised by witnesses before the Inquiry, not least by Mr Johnson's former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who claimed Mr Johnson asked scientists whether the virus could be destroyed by blowing a "special hair dryer" up the nose.

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