LONDON – Boris Johnson is in the dock.
The former prime minister, who led Britain through the coronavirus pandemic before the spectacular collapse of his administration in 2022, faces two days of questioning at the country’s official inquiry into the pandemic.
He has taken an oath to tell the truth and is pressed to give his account of what worked and, crucially, what didn’t, as the British state struggled to respond to the deadly virus.
POLITICO is in the room keeping track of all the key moments – so check back regularly.
Johnson kicked off the two-day hearing by apologizing — but there was plenty of drama when he did so.
Moments after the former Prime Minister was sworn in at the Paddington Inquiry Centre, he began apologizing for the “pain, loss and suffering” that has occurred during the coronavirus pandemic.
But he was quickly interrupted by inquiry chair Heather Hallett, who ordered protesters in the public gallery to sit down. After refusing to do so, four protesters – who were silent, but holding signs targeting Johnson – were removed.
Responding after the interruption, Johnson said he could “understand the feelings of these victims and their families.” He said his administration had done “the best it could” but admitted it could have done things “differently.”
Swear words? We all use them
The COVID investigation has so far cast a deeply unfavorable light on the culture of Downing Street Johnson’s Number 10 race – and Wednesday offered his first real chance to respond to a slew of lurid headlines.
WhatsApp messages already provided to the inquiry showed that senior figures – particularly Dominic Cummings, then a senior adviser to Johnson – used a multitude of expletives to describe colleagues they thought were unhelpful.
But, pressed by the “fruity” exchanges, the former prime minister declared that “much of the language of the style you are referring to is completely unknown to me.”
He said he had apologized in detail “to one particular person who suffered abuse” in the WhatsApp exchanges, but stressed that “the government has many difficult and competing characters whose views on top of each other may not be suitable for printing, but receive a terrible lot has been accomplished. » Most government WhatsApp exchanges would not normally see the light of day as part of a public inquiry, he stressed.
Senior Johnson Therapy Group
Wednesday’s questioning highlighted some of the frustrations of senior officials in Johnson’s government, including extraordinary exchanges among the country’s top officials about what it was like to work in Johnson’s government.
In stunning messages from July 2020, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill and his successor Simon Case lamented their lot in life.
In one exchange, Case expressed outrage at a “fucking extraordinary” turn of events and said he had “exploded” at Johnson’s top aide, Cummings, for arguing with the press. “I will not work in an environment where Dom is constantly exposing his plans and screwing over all of us in the process,” Case said.
Sedwill responded sarcastically, “But Dom never talks to the press. He told me!”
“This place is just crazy,” Case said. “Zero discipline.” And he said: “At this rate, I’ll have a hard time lasting six months. »
The frank exchanges are far from the caricature of the British civil service.
Johnson defends not chairing the crisis committee
Johnson stood by his decision not to chair meetings of the government’s COBRA crisis committee at the start of the pandemic, after being criticized for handing over to then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
The former prime minister said he was unaware of the impending severity of the virus and that, from January to February 2020, “COVID was like a cloud on the horizon no bigger than a person’s hand.” a man, and we didn’t know if that was the case. will turn into a typhoon or not.
Inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith pointed out that on January 16, 2020, COVID “spread to Thailand and Japan” and that British scientists reported a hospitalization rate of 12%.
But Johnson argued that at this stage of the crisis, “even the concept of a pandemic did not necessarily imply, to the mind of Whitehall (civil service), the kind of total disaster that COVID was going to become.”
“I look at how horrified we were now,” Johnson later admitted when pressed for an early response. “We collectively should have twigged a lot sooner, I should have twigged.”
This developing story is being updated