Boris Johnson Covid Inquiry live: ex-Prime Minister gives evidence on coronavirus pandemic - latest updates
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Boris Johnson has started giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry, and the former Prime Minister began by saying he was "deeply sorry" to families who had lost loved ones.
Johnson started his statement from 10am, and in two days of evidence is likely to argue he got the big calls right. The appearance has already been caught in scandal as Johnson was unable to provide the probe with any of his WhatsApp messages from February to June 2020 - the period of the first lockdown. He denied he deleted the messages and said it was a technical error.
The former Prime Minister defended Downing Street's "toxic culture" with abuse towards ministers and civil servants flying around WhatsApp groups. Johnson said: "It would not have been right to have a load of WhatsApps saying ‘aren’t we doing brilliantly folks’ - your criticisms might have been even more pungent."
Follow the latest updates from Health Editor David George and Politics Editor Ralph Blackburn on our live blog below, and watch Boris Johnson's statement on our live stream.
- Covid Inquiry still not able to access Boris Johnson's WhatsApps
- Johnson denies "toxic culture" in government - describing it as an "atmosphere of challenge"
- Ex-PM to continue giving evidence tomorrow
When is Boris Johnson giving evidence at the Covid Inquiry?
Boris Johnson arrived at the Covid Inquiry in Paddington this morning at 7am, with campaigners and bereaved families waiting for him. His evidence will start from 10am, and you can watch him right here on NationalWorld's live blog.
If you can't bear to watch him all day, follow the latest updates from myself and colleague David George here - as we'll be sitting through all of BoJo's bumbling apologies.
He will give his second day of evidence tomorrow. You can email any thoughts or comments to [email protected].
Covid Inquiry still not able to access Boris Johnson's WhatsApps
Baroness Heather Hallet’s inquiry still has not got access to Boris Johnson's WhatsApp messages from February to June 2020. Johnson denied he deleted the messages and said it was a technical error.
Technical experts had been trying to recover messages from his old mobile phone to hand them to the inquiry. Johnson was originally told to stop using the device over security concerns after it emerged his number had been online for 15 years.
A spokesman for the former prime minister said: “Boris Johnson has fully co-operated with the inquiry’s disclosure process and has submitted hundreds of pages of material. He has not deleted any messages."
Johnson was advised to stop using the phone and not access it again on security grounds while serving as prime minister in May 2021. The device he used during crucial periods of the pandemic was believed to contain messages relating to the ordering of the lockdowns in 2020. It was reported he forgot the security passcode.
Labour frontbencher Nick Thomas-Symonds said it was “typical and will be deeply disappointing to families who have lost loved ones and deserve nothing less than full disclosure”.
Opinion: Will Boris Johnson really apologise for his trailblazing incompetence?
I locked eyes with (and photographed) Johnson last year when he made a surprise visit to Southampton Airport - he should thank his lucky stars that both security and airport staff stopped me from interviewing him; hopefully in my stead, Hugo Keith KC can give him the reality-check pasting that he so thoroughly deserves.
What is Boris Johnson likely to be asked about?
Well where to start ... this could be an endless list, but I'll try and focus on some of the key points.
What was going on in February 2020? With coronavirus starting to spread across the globe, Boris Johnson failed to attend five consecutive Cobra meetings. He also went AWOL for 10 days at the end of February, a period which coincided with half-term, when no notes about Covid were sent to him. He was reportedly writing a book about Shakespeare.
Why did the UK lock down so late? Numerous people have given evidence to the Covid Inquiry that the government locked the country down too late, on 23 March 2020, and this cost many lives. Matt Hancock gave evidence last week, in which he claimed he told Johnson to lock down earlier. He also said the UK was following Italy, which was plunged into crisis in February.
Why was your administration so dysfunctional? One of the most striking themes of the Inquiry so far has been the chaotic and dysfunctional nature of No10 under Johnson. Advisers described Johnson as a shopping trolley behind his back, saying he was careering from one bad decision to another. This was particularly the case with the later lockdowns, with aides claiming Johnson kept changing his mind and this affected messaging.
Did you say 'let the bodies pile high'? Johnson is likely to be asked by some of his language, with reports that he said "let the bodies pile high" to end lockdown. Other notes from a meeting state Johnson said we are "killing the patient to tackle the tumour" about being bringing in too many restrictions around Covid. The same notes from the meeting say Johnson said "why are we destroying everything for people who will die anyway soon?"
Will you admit you knew there were parties in No10 during lockdown? Johnson has continued to state he had no idea that numerous parties were going in Downing Street under his watch. This is despite the fact he was fined over one of them. Parliament's Privileges Committee has already found he misled the House of Commons over this. Will he finally admit he knew?
Live stream begins
Baroness Hallett, who is leading the inquiry, has warned those involved about the confidentiality of witness statements. It comes following leaks about the content of today's evidence, which is being given by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"I am deeply sorry" says Johnson
"Can I just say how glad I am to be at this inquiry and how sorry I am for the pain, the loss and the suffering of the Covid victims," Johnson said.
He was cut off by someone standing up - who has now been booted out of the room by Baroness Hallett. There appears to be some sort of kerfuffle taking place off-screen.
Johnson's body language
Hugo Keith KC asked: "Do you agree that if the protection of life is the pre-eminent duty that every government owes to its citizens, then the number of those who died is the most important measurement?"
"It's what we were trying to prevent," Johnson replied. Others who have given evidence to the inquiry have been laid back in the chair - but Johnson is somewhat slouched over the table, and isn't doing much in the way of body language.
Dispute over missing WhatsApp messages
"I've handed over all the relevant WhatsApps," claims Johnson - but many of the messages could not initially be recovered from the early days of the pandemic following a "security breach". These 5,000 messages could not be retrieved, with the ex-PM suggesting it could be due to the app "going down".
He doesn't seem all that confident in his answer, however. "I can't give you the technical explanation," he admitted. Hugo Keith KC suggested a factory reset might be at fault here, but Johnson has pleaded ignorance to this.
He said: "I haven't removed any WhatsApps from my phone."
Pandemic mistakes go under the microscope
Johnson is now being quizzed on "lockdown mistakes" and asked for specifics by Mr Keith KC.
He said: "We were relying so much on messaging to help contain the virus. We needed the public to understand the message in as straightforward a way as possible and they really did, by and large.
"BBC News would have one message from Number 10 and then a slightly different one from Scotland. I think we need to sort that out in future. I'm sure there are plenty of other things we could have done differently.
"We had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision - we may have made mistakes. Inevitably we got some things wrong; I think we did our best."
Johnson "not sure" about excess deaths
"In hindsight it may be possible to see things we could have done differently - at the time I felt we were doing our best in very difficult circumstances to protect life and protect the NHS," Johnson said.
Hugo Keith KC responded: "Do you accept that overall the government decision-making in response led materially to there being a greater number of excess deaths in the United Kingdom?"
"I can't give you the answer to that - I'm not sure," Johnson replied. "Many other countries suffered terrible losses from Covid. That is of course no comfort to the bereaved and their families."
The UK had one of the highest rates of excess death in western Europe, second only to Italy.
"I think the statistics vary," Johnson added.