Former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to defend his record in high-stakes grilling at COVID inquiry

LONDON (AP) — Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led Britain through the coronavirus pandemic before being ousted by scandal, is set to defend his record on Wednesday at a public inquiry into the country’s handling of COVID-19.

Johnson will be grilled under oath by lawyers for the judge-led inquiry about his initial reluctance to impose a national lockdown in early 2020 and other fateful decisions.

Johnson arrived at the inquiry venue at daybreak, several hours before he was due to take the stand, avoiding a protest by relatives of COVID-19 victims.

Among those wanting answers from the inquiry are families of some of the more than 200,000 people in the U.K. who died after contracting the virus. A group gathered outside the office building where the inquiry was set, some holding pictures of their loved ones. A banner declared: “Let the bodies pile high” — a statement attributed to Johnson by an aide. Another sign said: “Johnson partied while people died.”

Johnson was pushed out of office by his own Conservative Party in mid-2022 after multiple ethics scandals, including the revelation that he and staff members held parties in the prime minister’s Downing Street offices in 2020 and 2021, flouting the government’s lockdown restrictions.

Former colleagues, aides and advisers have painted an unflattering picture of Johnson over weeks of testimony at the inquiry.

Former Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said Johnson was “bamboozled” by science. In diaries that have been seen as evidence, Vallance also said Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate.” Former adviser Dominic Cummings, now a fierce opponent of Johnson, said the then-prime minister asked scientists whether blowing a hair dryer up his nose could kill the virus.

The U.K. has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in Europe, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.

Johnson agreed in late 2021 to hold a public inquiry after heavy pressure from bereaved families. The probe, led by retired Judge Heather Hallett, is expected to take three years to complete, though interim reports will be issued starting next year.

The inquiry is divided into four sections modules, with the current phase focusing on political decision-making. The first stage, which concluded in July, looked at the country’s preparedness for the pandemic.

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