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'Completely wrong': Ex-British PM Boris Johnson on allegations of letting COVID-19 'rip' through UK

He was grilled about his government's “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, which supported the hospitality industry by subsidising restaurant meals, and delays in imposing a second national lockdown as the UK recorded a massive surge in COVID-19 deaths.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee London Published on: December 07, 2023 20:38 IST
Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Image Source : AP Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday rejected allegations that he wanted to let the COVID-19 pandemic "rip" through the UK population while defending his handling of the pandemic during a high-profile public inquiry into the crisis. Johnson's dismal handling of the crisis was one of the major reasons for his ouster in 2022.

Hugo Keith KC, the lead counsel to the inquiry, quizzed the former PM on whether his best approach was to "let the virus rip", to which Johnson said that responded “No, no, no” while being confronted with a series of diary entries by chief scientific adviser that he had argued in favour of letting the virus spread to increase immunity to COVID-19 rather than imposing restrictions. He said the implications drawn from his previous conversations were "completely wrong", Sky News reported.

"I think, frankly, it does not do justice to what we did — our thoughts, our feelings, my thoughts, my feelings — to say that we were remotely reconciled to fatalities across the country, or that I believed that it was acceptable to let it rip," said Johnson, while arguing that the inquiry should look at his public statements and actions rather than “people's jottings from meetings that I have been in”.

He was grilled about his government's “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, which supported the hospitality industry by subsidising restaurant meals, and delays in imposing a second national lockdown as infection rates began to rise toward the end of 2020. "The country had made a huge effort... the disease was no longer spreading in the way that it had been," BBC quoted Johnson as saying about the programme, which is said to have increased COVID-related deaths.

“I must emphasise, it was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk,” he added.

Johnson said that he would take full responsibility for everything the government said or did during the pandemic, but expressed regret over what happened. During the pandemic, his government implemented relaxations, such as a 10 pm curfew, work-from-home advice and regionally targeted restrictions in September and October of 2020 before it finally imposed a second national lockdown on October 31.

'Fought and fought' to keep schools open: Johnson

The former British PM also spoke on his decision to close schools in 2021, saying that it is always the poorest families who "come off worst from school closures". "We were desperate to keep schools open...Did I fight and fight and fight to keep schools open? Yes I did. I really wanted to do it, but it just wasn't a runner, and we had to shut everything down," he said.

In response to a question whether he did not care about holding held parties with staff members in the prime minister's Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021, flouting the government's lockdown restrictions, Johnson said, "I did care. To say that I didn't care about what was happening generally is the complete opposite of the truth. "Yes, I think that we could have done more in Number 10 to insist that people thought about the way that their behaviour could be perceived by others."

His remarks came after weeks of testimony by other ministers, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who said they sought to raise the alarm inside the government. Hancock argued that 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.

Johnson's former colleagues paint an unflattering picture

Former colleagues, aides and advisers have painted an unflattering picture of Johnson over weeks of testimony at the inquiry. 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.” 

Johnson's 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.

The UK had one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 2,32,000 people. Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families.

The ongoing probe, led by retired Judge Heather Hallett, is designed to uncover the lessons of COVID-19 to help officials better respond to future pandemics and is expected to take three years to complete, though interim reports will be issued starting next year.

The inquiry is divided into four sections modules, 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.

(with inputs from agencies)

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