Ex-UK leader Boris Johnson?rejects notion he wanted to let COVID-19 'rip' throug
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in sometimes angry testimony to Britain’s inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, on Thursday defended himself against suggestions that his indifference and failure to heed the advice of scientists led to thousands of unnecessary deaths.
In a second day of sworn testimony, Johnson rejected claims that he was prepared to let older people die to protect the economy and that he was too slow to order a second national lockdown as infection rates began to rise in the autumn of 2020.
Johnson, who left parliament after he was found to have misled lawmakers about lockdown-breaking parties during his premiership, said he learned about the horrors of COVID-19 firsthand when he was hospitalized with the disease in March 2020. In the intensive care unit, Johnson said he was surrounded not by elderly people but by middle-aged men like himself.
"I knew from that experience what an appalling disease this is. I had absolutely no personal doubt about that from March onwards," he said. "To say that I didn’t care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right."
Johnson’s testimony was an opportunity for the former prime minister to tell his side of the story 17 months after he was forced to resign following a series of scandals, including revelations about boozy parties in his Downing Street offices at a time when the country was under lockdown.
The families of COVID-19 victims have criticized his government for being slow to create an effective testing system, discharging hospital patients with the virus to care homes and dithering about restrictions on personal interactions - all of which contributed to a higher death toll in Britain than most European countries.
The inquiry, which began public hearings earlier this year and is expected to run through 2027, is designed to uncover the lessons of COVID-19 to help officials better respond to future pandemics.
During his <a href="https://apnews.com/article/uk-covid19-inquiry-boris-johnson-coronavirus-00b50f366e3928ead7213a2da5f51f84" xmlns="http://iptc.org/std/NITF/2006-10-18/">first day of testimony on Wednesday</a>, Johnson apologized for mistakes made during the early days of the pandemic but maintained that he got the big decisions right, most importantly investing in the development of vaccines that ultimately provided a way out of the pandemic.
On Thursday, an unusually polite and deferential Johnson downplayed the sometimes crude and bombastic language contained in WhatsApp messages, diaries and government documents provided to the inquiry by other witnesses.
In one exchange, Johnson shook his head and said "No, no, no" as he was confronted with a series of diary entries by his chief scientific adviser that indicated he had argued in favor of letting the virus spread rapidly to increase immunity to COVID-19 rather than imposing further restrictions on the people of Britain.
Johnson said he was simply pushing scientists to explain why such a strategy wouldn’t work as the government debated whether to impose a second national lockdown in the autumn of 2020 when infection rates were rising and vaccines weren’t yet available. The former prime minister said critics should look at his public statements and actions, rather than "people’s jottings from meetings that I have been in" when they assess the government’s response to the pandemic.
"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," a frustrated Johnson said under questioning from the inquiry’s chief legal counsel, Hugo Keith.
<a href="https://apnews.com/hub/boris-johnson" xmlns="http://iptc.org/std/NITF/2006-10-18/">Johnson</a> defended his efforts to balance public health measures against the need to protect the economy, in particular the government’s "Eat Out to Help Out" program, which supported the hospitality industry by subsidizing restaurant meals after the first lockdown ended in the summer of 2020.
Leading scientists have testified that they weren’t included in discussions about the program and that it was obvious it would increase the spread of COVID-19. Johnson said he had no reason to question the restaurant initiative.
"I must emphasize, it was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk," he said.
But as infection rates began to rise, the government was once again faced with the question of whether to impose another lockdown that would save lives but drastically curtail personal freedoms.
Johnson’s government implemented a series of less draconian measures including a 10 p.m. curfew, work from home advice and regionally targeted restrictions in September and October of 2020 before it finally imposed a second national lockdown on Oct. 31.
His remarks came after weeks of testimony by other ministers, including <a href="https://apnews.com/article/uk-covid-inquiry-matt-hancock-a5c6a465f41ef6ea430d557888138d6d" xmlns="http://iptc.org/std/NITF/2006-10-18/">former Health Secretary Matt Hancock</a>, who said they sought to raise the alarm inside the government about the threat posed by COVID-19. Hancock argued that thousands of lives could have been saved by starting the first national 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 <a href="https://apnews.com/article/britain-uk-covid-inquiry-hancock-643c9a9b126de8bbe49b34dd8d382a08" xmlns="http://iptc.org/std/NITF/2006-10-18/">highest COVID-19 death tolls</a>, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
Among Western European nations, only Italy recorded a higher excess death rate than Britain during the pandemic, according to data presented to the inquiry.
Families of the bereaved expressed hostility afterward, unmoved by his apologies. After Johnson testified, protesters outside shouted "murderer" and "shame on you" as left the building and into his awaiting car.