Boris Johnson has said he does not know if decisions by his government worsened the Covid death toll and has queried whether the UK fared worse than average, as his evidence to the pandemic inquiry was interrupted by protesters being removed from the hearing room.
Four people were ordered to leave by Heather Hallett, the inquiry chair, after holding up a sign reading, “The dead can’t hear your apologies”, as the former prime minister began two days of evidence by saying he was sorry “for the pain and the loss and the suffering of the Covid victims”.
“I understand the feelings of these victims and their families and I am deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and suffering of those victims and their families,” Johnson said, going on to thank healthcare workers and other public officials.
However, under close questioning from Hugo Keith KC, while Johnson said he took ultimate responsibility for all the major decisions of the pandemic, he declined to say that his apology meant that avoidable errors had occurred.
Johnson also said that abusive and misogynistic WhatsApp messages shown earlier to the inquiry did not mean Downing Street under his leadership was dysfunctional, arguing instead that such conflict could be “a good and a healthy thing” and would have happened in other governments, for example those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.
Such messages, rather than showing what Keith called “incompetence and disarray”, indicated people “stricken with anxiety about what is happening with the pandemic, who are doing their best”.
Johnson said: “I would make a distinction between the type of language and the decision-making processes of the government. And I would submit that any powerful and effective government … has a lot of challenging, competing characters whose views about each other might well not be be fit to print but get an awful lot done.”
Asked to name one mistake that had been made, Johnson appeared to struggle before suggesting that differences in policies between the UK government and devolved nations meant Covid messaging might have been confused.
Pressed as to whether he really believed this was one of the primary errors, and if not, which mistakes these had been, Johnson replied: “We did our level best. Were there things we should have done differently? Unquestionably. But I would struggle to itemise them before you now in a hierarchy.”
Keith went on to ask Johnson if by accepting errors he meant avoidable mistakes had happened, or just that with hindsight, some things could have been done differently. The former PM replied: ““I can’t give you the answer to that question. I’m not sure.”
Johnson also took issue with statistics showing that the UK fared worse than most other western European nations in terms of excess Covid deaths, arguing that the nation faced particular “headwinds” such as a dense and older population, and one with many health co-morbidities.
The UK was, Johnson said, “well down the European table and well down the world table” for excess deaths, something Keith said was not the case according to the statistics.
The inquiry also heard confirmation that it had been impossible to retrieve about 5,000 WhatsApp messages from Johnson’s old phone, covering the key period of January to June 2020, possibly caused by the phone undergoing a factory reset.