LONDON — Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged Wednesday that his government was too slow to grasp the extent of the COVID-19 crisis, but skirted questions about whether his indecisiveness had cost thousands of lives.
Testifying under oath at Britain's COVID-19 public 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 said.
Ex-Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the inquiry last week that he had tried to raise the alarm inside the government, saying thousands of lives could have been saved by putting the country under lockdown a few weeks earlier than the eventual date of March 23, 2020.
The United Kingdom went on to have one of Europe’s longest and strictest lockdowns, as well as one of the continent's highest COVID-19 death tolls, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
Johnson conceded that the government had “made mistakes,” but emphasized collective failure rather than his own errors. He said ministers, civil servants and scientific advisers had failed to sound a “loud enough klaxon of alarm” about the virus.
“I was not being informed that this was something that was going to require urgent and immediate action," he said.
Grilled by inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith, Johnson acknowledged that he didn't attend any of the government’s five crisis meetings on the new virus in February 2020, and only “once or twice” looked at meeting minutes from the government’s scientific advisory group. He said that he relied on “distilled” advice from his science and medicine advisers.
Anna-Louise Marsh-Rees, whose father died during the pandemic, said that Johnson came across as “casual, careless, chaotic, clueless.”
“It just feels like he was living under a rock,” she said outside the hearing.
Johnson started 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.”
The former prime minister had arrived at the west London inquiry venue at daybreak, several hours before he was due to take the stand, avoiding a protest by a group of bereaved relatives, 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 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.
Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families. The investigation, 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's goal is to learn lessons rather than assign individual blame, but its revelations could further tarnish Johnson's battered reputation. Former colleagues, aides and advisers have painted an unflattering picture of the former leader and his government during 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 administration, saying it contained “challenging” characters “whose views about each other might not be fit to print, but who got an awful lot done.”
He said he didn't recognize the chaotic picture painted by other witnesses at the inquiry.
"Nobody came to me and said ‘people have got God complexes and there’s internecine warfare going on here,'” Johnson said.
Johnson said he was “not sure” whether his government's decisions had caused excess deaths. He said that deciding when to impose lockdowns and other restrictions had been “painful” and “incredibly difficult."
Johnson sometimes appeared strained and emotional as he remembered the “tragic year” of 2020 and having to balance public health with the economic damage caused by lockdowns. But he denied allegations — in messages exchanged between aides at the time — that he had vacillated wildly about what to do as the virus spread.
The inquiry can compel witnesses to hand over emails and other communications evidence — but it hasn't received around 5,000 of Johnson's 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.
Johnson was unable to explain what had happened to the messages, but said he wanted to "make it absolutely clear I haven’t removed any WhatsApps from my phone.”