Covid Inquiry: Boris Johnson "anxious" about entering lockdown early - and defends Number 10's toxic culture
Boris Johnson was "anxious" about going against scientific advice and putting the UK into lockdown sooner, he has told the Covid Inquiry panel.
Today (December 6) the former Prime Minister has started giving evidence to the inquiry, which is exploring failures in the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and what lessons can be learned from it. The inquiry, now in its second phase, has already heard from the likes of former chief adviser Dominic Cummings and former health secretary Matt Hancock.
Hancock - and other scientific advisers such as Professor Sir Chris Whitty - have said that with hindsight, the UK should have entered lockdown weeks before the end of March 2020. But Johnson said today that he would likely not have changed his mind about when to enter lockdown, citing concerns that the British public would get "fed up" of the Covid measures.
In the same evidence, the former PM defended the "toxic culture" that has been exposed in Downing Street during the course of the inquiry.
A number of provinces in Italy were hit hard by Covid-19 in February; Boris Johnson saw the impact but work against the virus did not accelerate action plans.
"The scenes from Italy really rattled me," Johnson confessed. "I saw somewhere that the fatality rate was eight per cent because they had an elderly population. I look at all this with horror now - we should collectively had twigged a lot sooner. I should have twigged.
"It [not going into lockdown] was the pervailing view for some time. People get fed up if you have to keep doing it, so my anxiety was that without a vaccination programme what would happen if we went into a lockdown early.
"I'm afraid it's what happened - I can't say I would have gone earlier becuase that's the advice I was given. To do it [lockdown] at the drop of a hat is very logistically difficult. I don't remember saying to myself 'this is so bad, I must ignore the scientific advice'. I didn't do that and perhaps with hindsight I should have done, but I just don't know the answer."
Over the morning session, the question of the toxic culture at Downing Street was also raised, with Hugo Keith KC stating that people refused to come into work due to the toxicity and blame game that was being played. But while others who gave evidence have acknowledged this, Johnson instead defended the atmosphere in Number 10.
In response to a message sent by Johnson calling health secretary Matt Hancock “totally f****** useless” the former Prime Minister 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. I would say my job was not to accept that everything we were doing was good, although the country as a whole had notable achievements.
“It’s part of life - everybody is constantly militating against some other individual, that’s just the nature of it. I stuck by the health secretary, I thought he worked very hard and was doing his best in very difficult circumstances.
"Those comments reflect a deep anxiety of people doing their best who cannot see and easy solution and are naturally critical of others. I decided at the time it was best to have an atmosphere of challenge.”