Boris Johnson Apologizes at U.K. Covid Inquiry for ‘Pain and Suffering’

Regretful but unruffled, Boris Johnson acknowledged on Wednesday that as Britain’s prime minister during the pandemic, he had underestimated the threat of coronavirus as it spread into the country in early 2020. But he rejected suggestions that his government’s initially slow response had driven up Britain’s death toll.

Speaking before an official inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis, Mr. Johnson apologized for “the pain and suffering and the loss” of those who died from Covid, and of their families. He said they deserved answers as he submitted to two days of grilling about his leadership and judgment during those frantic days.

“There are clearly things that we could have done, and should have done, if we’d known and understood how this was spreading,” Mr. Johnson said, though he did not offer much in the way of examples in his first morning of testimony. “We collectively should have twigged much sooner” to the grave danger posed by the virus, he said. “I should have twigged.”

Still, Mr. Johnson sparred with the committee’s counsel, Hugo Keith, over whether Britain’s death toll, currently at 230,193, placed it among the worst-hit European countries, or merely in the middle. (Britain’s per capita death rate is higher than that of France or Germany, and only marginally lower than that of Italy, the European country most ravaged in the first wave of infections.)

Mr. Johnson, whose time in office was defined and ultimately derailed by the pandemic, is the most eagerly anticipated witness so far in the inquiry, an independent, public examination of Britain’s response to Covid-19, led by a former judge, Heather Hallett, that is expected to continue until 2026.

Mr. Johnson arrived at the hearing room shortly after 7 a.m., hours before the session began, enabling him to avoid Covid victims’ family members who later gathered to protest his appearance. Ms. Hallett had to call on protesters several times to stop disrupting the hearing as the former prime minister began to speak.

Mr. Johnson generally kept his cool during the first morning, only showing a flash of irritation as Mr. Keith pressed him about whether he had taken his eye off the ball in February 2020 when he retreated to Chevening, an official residence outside London, and failed to chair several key meetings about the crisis.

“Nobody is suggesting you had your feet up at Chevening,” Mr. Keith said.

“Apart from you, that is,” a visibly peeved Mr. Johnson replied.

Mr. Keith noted that it was Mr. Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who had testified that Mr. Johnson was on vacation during that period. Mr. Johnson said he had been briefed on the crisis throughout that February, though he acknowledged not reading material from the government’s scientific advisory committee.

When asked about the decisions for which he was specifically apologizing, Mr. Johnson referred to difficulties in coordinating England’s public health messages with the authorities in Scotland and Wales, then said that he did not want to prejudge the conclusions that would unfold from his evidence.

“Inevitably, we got some things wrong,” Mr. Johnson said, while insisting that he and his close aides had been doing their best at the time.

But asked whether he had personally read any more than a small fraction of the available minutes from the deliberations of the government’s key committee of outside advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, Mr. Johnson admitted that he had not, saying he had consulted them “once or twice.”

The former prime minister also struggled to explain the technical reason for the failure to recover about 5,000 WhatsApp messages from his old cellphone that related to that time of the pandemic and had been sought by the inquiry. He insisted that he had not removed them himself by performing a factory reset of the device, and said he had provided all the evidence he could.

In a key exchange, Mr. Johnson was asked about the work culture in 10 Downing Street — described by other witnesses as chaotic and toxic during his tenure — as well as about failings of his leadership and WhatsApp messages from Mr. Cummings, who had criticized the performance of the health secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, in scathing terms.

The text exchanges, Mr. Johnson said, showed that WhatsApp is “intended to be, though clearly it isn’t, ephemeral.” But he played down the “pejorative and hyperbolic” language, arguing that it had actually revealed useful creative tensions in the government. It would have been much worse, he said, to have led a government so deferential that senior figures never challenged one another.

“If you are prime minister,” he said, “you are constantly being lobbied by somebody to sack somebody else.”

Mr. Johnson rejected claims of a “toxic” environment in Downing Street, accepting only that the gender balance among his senior team had been poor, with too many meetings being male-dominated.

Asked whether he had fired Mr. Cummings and the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, Mr. Johnson said, “They both stepped aside from government, but it was very difficult, very challenging, period,” he said. He added, “They were getting very frazzled, because they were frustrated. Covid kept coming at us in waves.”

Mr. Johnson was also expected to be asked about Downing Street social gatherings that violated lockdown rules — a scandal that forced him out of office after a parliamentary committee concluded in June this year that he had deliberately misled lawmakers about his attendance at some of those parties.

The former leader may prove to be merely a warm-up act for the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who served as chancellor of the Exchequer under Mr. Johnson and will also face questions in the inquiry about his performance during the crisis.

The testimony, experts said, is a chance for Mr. Johnson to explain how he navigated between ministers like Mr. Sunak, who warned about the damage of shutting down Britain’s economy, and Mr. Cummings, who urged Mr. Johnson to impose swift, prolonged lockdowns.

“Some of that flip-flopping was him listening to Rishi Sunak one day and Dominic Cummings the next,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

With much of the attention so far focused on the infighting in the government, some experts have expressed concern that the inquiry is not doing enough to set out lessons that would allow Britain to avoid missteps in the next pandemic.

“Where does this leave us, beyond trying to elect a different prime minister the next time?” Professor Sridhar said.

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