Former UK PM Boris Johnson says he underestimated COVID threat

Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives evidence at the COVID-19 Inquiry in London on Wednesday in this screengrab obtained from a handout video. Photo: UK Covid-19 Inquiry/Handout via Reuters

London: British former prime minister Boris Johnson gave his most explicit apology for his handling of the coronavirus crisis on Wednesday, saying his government had been too complacent and initially underestimated the risks posed by the virus.

In an appearance before an official inquiry into the UK's handling of the pandemic, Johnson said he took responsibility for all decisions made and he understood the public's anger after the inquiry heard of government incompetence, backstabbing and misogyny as it battled the biggest health crisis in decades.

Johnson said COVID-19 had first appeared as a "cloud on the horizon" and not the "typhoon" that went on to kill more than 230,000 people in Britain and infect many millions more.

Initially, Johnson said he did not believe the forecasts of fatalities and only read the minutes of the government's key scientific advisory group on a couple of occasions despite their conclusions leading to the biggest crackdown on civil liberties since World War Two.

"Can I say that I understand the feelings of the victims and their families, and I am deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering," he said at the start of a two-day hearing.

Johnson, prime minister for three years between 2019 and 2022, resigned in disgrace after a series of scandals including reports that he, and other officials, had been present at alcohol-fuelled gatherings in Downing Street during 2020 and 2021 when most people in Britain were forced to stay at home.

The inquiry has already heard damaging testimony about his reluctance to lock down, and how he was confused by the science.

Johnson was said to have asked at one point if blowing a hair-dryer up his nose could kill the virus and suggested he should be injected with COVID-19 on live TV to calm public fears.

The former prime minister faced repeated questions about whether he waited too long to impose a lockdown at the start of 2020 and if that resulted in Britain ending up with one of the world's highest death tolls from the pandemic.

Protesters hold pictures and banners as they wait outside the UK COVID-19 Inquiry in London on Wednesday. Photo: Reuters/Maja Smiejkowska

Johnson said there were constant, conflicting arguments between ministers and officials about how to respond and his cabinet of senior ministers were more reluctant than he was to impose restrictions on the public's movements.

He arrived at the inquiry in the dark, more than three hours before the hearing began, avoiding the families of some of those who died from COVID-19, and who had wanted to confront Johnson over claims that he told colleagues he would prefer to see people die in large numbers than order a second lockdown.

The start of the session was disrupted by protesters, who were warned, and in some cases ordered to leave, by the inquiry's chairwoman.

Aamer Anwar, the solicitor representing some bereaved COVID families, said Johnson oversaw "a deadly culture of impunity, incompetence" and treating people like "toxic waste".

The inquiry has seen evidence from the government's former chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, who wrote in his diary in Oct. 2020 that Johnson wanted to let the virus spread rather than order another lockdown.

Other senior advisers including Dominic Cummings and Eddie Lister claim Johnson also said "let the bodies pile high".

Johnson said abusive messages sent between officials shown to the inquiry did not mean his leadership was dysfunctional. But he admitted that during the pandemic his team would have worked better if it had more women in it.

In one messages shown to the inquiry, Cummings, who was then Johnson's most senior official, complained in a profanity-laden message that he was "dodging stilettos" from a female colleague and wanted to "handcuff her and escort her" from Downing Street.

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