LONDON (AP) — Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday rejected suggestions that he wanted to let COVID-19 “rip” through the population as he defended his handling of the pandemic during a second day of testimony at a public inquiry into the crisis.
Johnson shook his head and responded “No, no, no” as he was confronted with a series of diary entries by his chief scientific adviser that indicated he had argued in favor of letting the virus spread rapidly to increase immunity to COVID-19 rather than imposing further restrictions on the people of Britain.
The former prime minister, who is testifying under oath, said he was simply pushing scientists to explain why such a strategy wouldn’t work as the government debated whether to impose a second national lockdown in the autumn of 2020 when infection rates were rising and vaccines weren’t yet available. Johnson said critics should look at his public statements and actions, rather than “people’s jottings from meetings that I have been in” when they assess the government’s response to the pandemic.
“I think, frankly, it does not do justice to what we did — our thoughts, our feelings, 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,” a frustrated Johnson said under questioning from the inquiry’s chief legal counsel, Hugo Keith.
Johnson’s government implemented a series of less draconian measures including a 10 p.m. curfew, work from home advice and regionally targeted restrictions in September and October of 2020 before it finally imposed a second national lockdown on Oct. 31.
Johnson defended his efforts to balance the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. He was grilled about his government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” program, which supported the hospitality industry by subsidizing restaurant meals, and delays in imposing a second national lockdown as infection rates began to rise toward the end of 2020.
Leading scientists have testified that they weren’t part of the discussions on the program and that it was obvious it would increase transmission risks. Johnson said he had no reason to question the restaurant initiative.
“I must emphasize, it was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk,” he said.
His remarks came after weeks of testimony by other ministers, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who said they sought to raise the alarm inside the government. Hancock argued that thousands of lives could have been saved by putting the country under a lockdown a few weeks earlier than the eventual date of March 23, 2020.
The United Kingdom went on to have one of Europe’s longest and strictest lockdowns, as well as one of the continent’s highest COVID-19 death tolls, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
The inquiry is designed to uncover the lessons of COVID-19 to help officials better respond to future pandemics, but its revelations could further tarnish Johnson’s battered reputation.
Johnson was celebrated for delivering a landslide victory for his Conservative Party in 2019 but forced to resign as prime minister last year following a series of scandals, including revelations about boozy parties at his Downing Street offices while the country was locked down during the pandemic.