Boris Johnson attacks ‘absurd’ partygate representation in emotional hearing
Boris Johnson complained of “absolutely absurd” characterisations of the partygate debacle, as defended his handling of the latter stages of the pandemic.
The former prime minister insisted on Thursday that he was not “reconciled” to Covid deaths or thought it wise to “let it rip” in the autumn of 2020, as he appeared for a second day of questioning at the Covid-19 inquiry.
Many of the questions Mr Johnson faced focused on the events leading to the second national lockdown in the autumn of 2020, while also being grilled on the impact revelations of rule-breaking inside Number 10 had on public confidence.
At one stage, he appeared to become emotional as he spoke of his own experience of being admitted to intensive care in April 2020 to reject suggestions he did not care about the suffering of the public.
It came as inquiry lead counsel Hugo Keith KC pressed Mr Johnson about the lockdown-breaching parties that were held in Downing Street.
Dubbed the partygate scandal, the row eventually led to Mr Johnson’s exit from high office last year and eventual decision in June, following a probe by lawmakers into whether he misled Parliament over the gatherings, to quit as an MP.
Mr Johnson was presented with a WhatsApp message, dated December 17 2021, that saw him tell Cabinet Secretary Simon Case: “In retrospect, we all should have told people – above all Lee Cain – to think about their behaviour in number ten and how it would look.
“But now we must smash on.”
The former PM told the inquiry: “When I went into intensive care, I saw around me a lot of people who were not actually elderly. They were middle-aged men and they were quite like me.
“And some of us were going to make it, some of us weren’t.
“And what I am trying to tell you in a nutshell and the NHS thank God did an amazing job and helped me survive.
“But I knew from that experience, what an appalling disease this is.
“I had absolutely no personal doubt about that from March onwards. To say that I didn’t care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right.”
Mr Keith responded: “I have never suggested you didn’t care about the suffering. I suggested you didn’t care about the reaction to the behaviour.”
Appearing before Lady Hallett’s probe, Mr Johnson also complained about how the scandal has been presented to the public.
He also said that “the dramatic representations that we’re now having of this are absolutely absurd”.
“I really want to emphasise, and you talk about the impression, the version of events that has entered the popular consciousness about what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street is a million miles from the reality of what actually happened in Number 10.”
He said he was speaking on behalf of “hundreds and hundreds of hard-working civil servants who thought that they were following the rules”.
He said that the “characterisation, the representation, has been of what civil servants and advisers were doing in Number 10 has been a travesty of the truth”.
Mr Johnson also strongly rejected the idea that he backed a so-called “let it rip” approach to the virus as the Government grappled with rising Covid cases in September 2020.
He conceded that the idea behind the phrase came up in discussions inside Downing Street as he pondered how to respond to an impending second wave.
Appearing before the Covid-19 Inquiry as he gave his second day of evidence, Mr Johnson was pressed on diary extracts from Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s former chief scientific adviser, on his thinking in the second half of the year.
Sir Patrick, in one diary entry in August, said Mr Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.
In another entry from October, the top scientist said the then-prime minister was “obsessed with the average age of death being 82”.
Later, in May 2021, Sir Patrick wrote: “PM meeting – Cx (Chancellor, then Rishi Sunak) suddenly pipes up on incentives already in place. Argues that we should let it rip a bit.”
Mr Johnson firmly denied that the extracts represented a glimpse into a government that favoured no national lockdown “until the last possible moment” and instead backed a tiered system.
Pointing to the “the accounts that you have culled from people’s jottings from meetings that I’ve been in,” he defended the measures taken by the Government.
“I think, frankly, it does not do justice to what we did – our thoughts, our feeling, 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.”
Mr Johnson said that the “let it rip” phrase was in “common parlance” and that he was “representing the only layperson in the meeting”.
Elsewhere in the hearing he said the Eat Out to Help Out scheme was not seen as a “gamble” at the time. He claimed to be “perplexed” at the suggestion top scientists were unaware of the scheme.
Leading Government scientists, as well as former health secretary Matt Hancock, have claimed they were not told in advance about the plan to revive the hospitality industry in the summer of 2020.
He also admitted that the tier system, introduced in a bid to stem cases of Covid-19 during the pandemic, did not work but insisted it was “worth a try”.
Asked about the furore over Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Barnard Castle, he described it as a “bad moment”.
Mr Keith finished his questioning of Mr Johnson just before lunchtime. The former prime minister will face questions from other counsel lawyers this afternoon.
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