Boris Johnson tells Covid inquiry his job was to control ‘challenging characters’ — as it happened

Boris Johnson faced his first day of questioning at the Covid inquiry today.

In his opening remarks, the former prime minister, who was at the helm throughout the pandemic, apologised “for the pain and the loss” that families experienced during the pandemic.

He told the inquiry: “By your leave can I just say how glad I am to be at this inquiry and how sorry I am for the pain and the loss and the suffering of those victims and their families?”.

It came as previous witnesses, including former health secretary Matt Hancock, have conceded lockdown should have been introduced earlier than 23 March.

Among the other officials who have said lockdown should have come in sooner are Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, then the chief scientific adviser, and Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary


17.00 pm — That’s all for today…

Thank you very much for joining us as Boris Johnson gave his first day of evidence to the Covid inquiry. See how the day transpired with our as-it-happened rolling coverage.

16.40 pm — Boris Johnson is asked about a section in Dominic Cummings’ witness statement.

The former No 10 chief adviser alleged that the former PM wanted to keep former health secretary  Matt Hancock in post as a “sacrifice for the inquiry”.

Johnson responds: “I don’t remember that at all. It’s nonsense. My thinking was very straightforward I had a health secretary who was a good public communicator, in my view”

15.50 pm — Boris Johnson is asked about the part of his witness statement in which he details how devolved nations did not always align with England or the UK’s interests.

He responded: “I was making a much more limited point, and it’s no disrespect to the First Minister of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, they understandably were looking to talk to directly to their own electorates, there were going to be times when they differed from the main UK Government message, and I thought that was sometimes a risk of being confusing at a time when we really needed to land messages simply.”

14.59 pm — Asked about the suggestions from Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings that he could not make up his mind, Boris Johnson says:

I had made up my mind… I’ve got the chancellor of the exchequer with me saying there’s a risk to the UK bond markets and our ability to raise sovereign debt. This matters massively to people in this country. It matters to the livelihoods of people up and down the land. I had to go through the arguments, and that is what I was doing.

14.00 pm — The inquiry returns from a lunch break:

Boris Johnson admits he should not have shaken hands with people on a visit to the Royal Free Hospital on March 1, 2020.

“I shouldn’t have done that in retrospect”, he said.

“I should have been more precautionary but I wanted to be encouraging people.”

13.00 pm — Boris Johnson is asked about Sir Chris Whitty’s belief that the “timing of implementation” of measures was “crucial”, as “compliance” was dependent on this. Theses views were aired during a COBRA meeting related to Covid on 3 March 2020, the first Johnson attended in the pandemic.

Johnson is asked to what extent his decisions were influenced by this. The former PM responds: “It was the prevailing view for a long time.”

Asked next whether he would have implemented measures earlier if this was not the case, Johnson says:  “We did lock down, but then it bounced back.”

“I can’t say that I would have gone earlier”, he adds when pressed again.

12.07 pm — Boris Johnson admits in his witness statement to the Covid inquiry that there were “many things we would have done differently” if ministers were aware of asymptomatic transmission.

Lead counsel Hugo Keith puts it to Johnson that important parts of government did know about this by mid-February. Johnson says in his oral testimony that he doesn’t know which people knew about it during this pre-lockdown period.

Keith suggests the chief medical officer told the health secretary on 28 February about credible evidence of asymptomatic transmission within Germany.

Johnson responds by saying he doesn’t recall being told about this conversation; he adds that it’s possible he has “completely forgotten” it.

11.37 am — Boris Johnson is questioned on former health secretary Matt Hancock’s attempts to “alert” him

Johnson says he doesn’t remember all of the conversations he had with Hancock, but he does recall one on 7 January.

Overall, he says he and Hancock “generally spoke quite a lot”.

11.13 am — The inquiry has adjourned briefly, and will return at 11. 20 am.

11.11 am — Boris Johnson is shown WhatsApp messages from Simon Case, Mark Sedwill’s replacement as cabinet secretary.

Case says Cummings had “zero discipline”, adding: “I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country.”

Johnson responded by calling this part of “day-to-day” friction, adding that if Margaret Thatcher’s government had used Whatsapp they’d have said similarly “fruity” things

11.06 am — Boris Johnson is asked about his own comments that health secretary Matt Hancock was “totally f***** useless”.

Johnson says: “My job was not uncritically to accept that everything we were doing was good. I do think that the country as a whole had notable achievements during the crisis.”

He refers to his job as getting “a number of quite challenging characters” to keep going and “to keep doing their level best to protect the country”.

11.00 am — It is put to Boris Johnson that Mark Sedwill, then the cabinet secretary, described his administration as “brutal and useless”.

Johnson responds: “I think that actually what you’re looking at in all this stuff is a lot of highly talented and highly motivated people who are stricken with anxiety about what is happening, about the pandemic, who are doing their best and who like all human beings under great stress and great anxiety about themselves and their own performance will be inclined to be critical of others.

“And I think that will have been the same of any administration facing the same sort of challenges on that scale”.

10.54 am — Boris Johnson comments on Eat Out to Help scheme, championed by then-chancellor and now PM Rishi Sunak.

He says: “I think that there was certainly transparent economic analysis of the cost of some of the measures that we were obliged to enact”.

10.38 am — Asked why the UK suffered such a high rate of excess deaths by lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, Boris Johnson challenges the question’s framing.

Keith replies that the UK was one of the worst off — “if not the second worst off”.

Johnson argues “statistics vary” and insists the UK was “well down the European table, even further down the world table”.

10.30 am — Asked if he can differentiate between the personal responsibility he takes and that of the government, Johnson says: “I take personal responsibility for all the decisions we made.”

Full exchange:

Hugo Keith KC: “Do you take responsibility for the speed of the government’s response”

Boris Johnson: “Of course”

Hugo Keith KC: “Do you take responsibility for the lockdown decisions?”

Boris Johnson: “Of course”

Hugo Keith KC: “The explosion of the virus [in] the residential care sector?”

Boris Johnson: “Yes”

Hugo Keith KC: “The eat out to help out scheme?”

Boris Johnson: “Yes”

10.16 am — Boris Johnson addresses the inquiry as he says he is “glad” to be here.

He says “how sorry I am for the pain and the loss” that families experienced during the pandemic.

He is then interrupted by the inquiry chair. “Please sit down”, Baroness Heather Hallett tells others in the room, before our people are then escorted out.

10.08 am — Baroness Heather Hallett, the chairman of the Covid Inquiry, begins: “Before we start I’d like to express my concern about reports in the press of the contents of Mr Johnson’s witness statement to the inquiry and what his evidence will be.

“Until a witness is called and appears at a hearing or the inquiry publishes the witness’s statement, it is meant to be confidential between the witness, the inquiry and the core participants, and I wish to remind all those involved in the inquiry process that they must maintain this confidentiality so as to allow the sharing of materials prior to hearing between those most involved in the inquiry process.

“Failing to respect confidentiality undermines the inquiry’s ability to do its job fairly, effectively and independently.”

10.04 am — Boris Johnson has been sworn in at the Covid inquiry in central London, where he will shortly kick off his two days of evidence.

09.27 am — Aamer Anwar, a lawyer from Scottish Bereaved Families, says evidence so far has exposed a culture of “incompetence, of arrogance, of blaming everyone else but themselves.”

He said: “In recent days as predicted, the UK Covid inquiry has come under sustained and orchestrated attacks from sections of the media. This has been to defend Boris Johnson. But for the families we represent, this inquiry has robustly acted without fair or favour.

“Boris Johnson is expected to issue an apology this morning, yet he will claim he saved thousands of lives. For many of the bereaved that will be a grotesque distortion of the truth.

“In Boris Johnson’s words, instead of solving a national crisis his government presided over a total disgusting orgy of narcissism. He did let the bodies pile up, and the elderly were treated like toxic waste.”

08.32 am — Previously at the Covid inquiry: Matt Hancock admits he didn’t read SAGE meeting minutes at start of Covid pandemic

Matt Hancock: I didn’t read SAGE meeting minutes at start of Covid pandemic

08.28 am — Boris Johnson was ‘trying to do the best he could’ through pandemic, minister insists.

Policing minister Chris Philp told Sky News: “None of us had seen a pandemic on that scale before. The last time it happened was the Spanish influenza epidemic, I think, in about 1918.

“We were in uncharted territory. He was trying, as far as I could see, to make the right decisions in a very difficult, fast moving situation.

“There’s no doubt, looking back with hindsight, you can look back and point to things that could have been done better, or that could have been done better.

“These are really difficult decisions. Even with hindsight, it’s not completely clear what the answer is.”

08.26 am — Boris Johnson accused of ‘the usual lies and bluster’ ahead of Covid inquiry appearance

Matt Fowler, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, told the Guardian: “Boris Johnson’s team appear to have been leaking his witness statement left, right and centre ahead of his appearance tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, the claims he’s making are the usual lies and bluster”.

Boris Johnson accused of ‘the usual lies and bluster’ ahead of Covid inquiry appearance

08.20 am — Good morning and welcome back to “Politics Live”,‘s rolling coverage of the day’s key moments in Westminster and beyond. Here you can keep up to date with today’s major parliamentary debates, press conferences and news events in real time.

Here’s what’s happening today:

  • Boris Johnson faces a two-day grilling at the Covid inquiry 
  • Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak face-off, as usual, at prime minister’s questions from noon

Stay with us and we’ll bring you all the latest developments as they unfold.