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Johnson set to face grilling at Covid inquiry

Boris Johnson will be forced to revisit and explain how his government responded to coronavirus on Wednesday as he appears before the UK’s official inquiry into the pandemic.

The chaos at the heart of Britain’s handling of Covid-19 has been laid bare in recent weeks, with testimonies describing a “toxic” culture in Downing Street and how Johnson was “bamboozled” by scientific data. 

Allies of the former prime minister said he would apologise for mistakes made by his administration but would robustly defend its successes. Johnson’s team is aware he faces many serious claims, but believes he has answers that will help rehabilitate his reputation.

Among the most grave suggestions facing Johnson, in office between 2019 and 2022, is that he ordered the first UK lockdown on March 23, 2020 too late. 

Last week, former health secretary Matt Hancock said imposing a lockdown three weeks earlier “would have saved many, many lives”. Last month, the inquiry heard that senior advisers to Johnson had recommended the move on March 14.

Johnson’s allies said he was likely to highlight remarks from UK scientists as late as mid-March urging a herd immunity strategy or warning of the risk of lockdown fatigue, with people growing weary of and disobeying rules if applied too soon.

Boris Johnson announces the first lockdown on March 23 2020 © Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Hancock also blamed “enormous pressure” from Conservative MPs and cabinet ministers on Johnson’s decision to delay reintroducing curbs in autumn 2020.

Johnson is expected to stress that deciding on the second and third lockdowns, which came into force in England in November 2020 and January 2021, involved trade-offs between public health and economic considerations.

Johnson is also likely to be asked about a claim, confirmed by insiders familiar with events, that he called on the security services in March 2021 to explore “military options” to obtain 5mn doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from a Dutch factory after the EU threatened to impose an export ban.

The Covid inquiry is examining the government’s response to the pandemic, including the UK’s preparedness and senior decision-making. Comprising at least six modules, it is due to run until the summer of 2026.

Johnson will give evidence over two days after a number of former top officials and ministers, who have made damaging allegations about his leadership.

In private messages from late 2020 seen by the inquiry, Simon Case, Britain’s highest-ranking civil servant, said Johnson changed “strategic direction every day”.

Lee Cain, former Downing Street head of communications, said Johnson was “challenging . . . to work with”, “oscillated” on key policy choices and took “a decision from the last person in the room”.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser when Covid struck, said Johnson was “bamboozled” and “confused” by the scientific modelling presented to him.

Johnson is expected to counter the claim made Dominic Cummings, his former chief adviser, that he was a “shopping trolley” by arguing that the scientific picture in early 2020 was dynamic and that it was right to change course as the picture evolved, even at the expense of consistency in government communications to the public.

He is also expected to stress the divergence of scientific opinion on issues including face masks, closing schools and borders, asymptomatic transmission and transmission vectors.

Since its second module, which covers “core political and administrative decision-making”, began in October, the inquiry has heard comments allegedly made by Johnson during the pandemic, including from witnesses who have remained loyal to him.

Lord Eddie Lister, Johnson’s former chief strategic adviser, told the inquiry that Johnson said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown in September 2020. 

In diary entries from around the same time, Vallance said Johnson appeared “obsessed with older people accepting their fate” and considered the virus to be “just nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

Spokespeople for Johnson have long denied he made certain comments ascribed to him, but he is expected to accept in evidence that at times he used “expressive” language.

Employing such a register was a way to test advisers’ ideas, rather than sitting in silence listening, one ally said.

In addition to flaws in decision-making, witnesses have criticised the culture at the heart of Johnson’s government. Helen MacNamara, deputy cabinet secretary between 2020 and 2021, said last month that his Number 10 was “toxic”, “macho” and “contaminated by ego”. 

Former health secretary Matt Hancock tells the Covid inquiry that imposing a lockdown three weeks earlier ‘would have saved many, many lives’ © UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA

Her claim has since been echoed by others: Hancock said a “toxic culture” led to the spread of misinformation about the Department of Health and Social Care. Sajid Javid, Hancock’s successor as health secretary, described Downing Street as “dysfunctional” before March 2020. 

Johnson, who has signed a string of deals since leaving office, is expected to swerve personal criticism of former colleagues but will make clear he did not condone abusive language. He will also reject any suggestion that a toxic culture in Downing Street was a result of his leadership.

Last month, the inquiry heard that Lord Mark Sedwill, Case’s predecessor as cabinet secretary, urged Johnson to remove Hancock in 2020.

It has also seen private messages in which Cummings warned Johnson that Hancock’s “incompetence” was “killing” people. 

If pushed on why he did not sack Hancock, Johnson is expected to say that moving or firing a health secretary in a pandemic would have been a “big call” and risked leaving the health department rudderless.

Johnson has been prepared for his two days of evidence by Brian Altman KC. Previously first senior Treasury counsel, the top prosecution barrister in England, Altman is former lead counsel in two public inquiries and has been described by legal guides as a “heavyweight champion” of the profession. 

Though Altman can brief Johnson on possible lines of questioning ahead of his appearance, the former prime minister will appear by himself in front of lawyers and relatives of Covid-19 victims, who are set to gather outside the inquiry building on Wednesday with photographs of loved ones.

A spokesperson for Johnson said he was “looking forward to assisting the inquiry with its important work”.

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