Key questions Boris Johnson could face at the COVID inquiry

Key questions Boris Johnson could face at the COVID inquiry

Boris Johnson will appear before the COVID inquiry this week to face scrutiny about the decisions he made during the pandemic.

The former prime minister is expected to issue an apology on behalf of the government about the early handling of the crisis but insist he got the big calls right.

He is expected to face difficult questions on multiple issues – including the partygate scandal and evidence heard at the inquiry so far.

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Here are some of the things he could be asked.

Why wasn’t lockdown implemented sooner?

Mr Johnson will likely be asked about whether he initially took the threat of the virus seriously enough and should have acted sooner.

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Previous witnesses including Matt Hancock have conceded lockdown should have been introduced earlier than 23 March, with the former health secretary saying “many lives” would have been saved had the action come three weeks beforehand.

Others have accused him of dither and delay, with witnesses to the inquiry describing how he often “oscillated” over key issues and wanted to be like the mayor from the movie Jaws who kept the beaches open, even as he faced warnings the NHS would be overwhelmed.

Did he go on holiday at a crucial time?

Mr Johnson is likely to be asked why he took a 10-day break in February 2020, when cases had been confirmed in the UK. The inquiry has heard that during this time the prime minister received no information from his staff on the virus, including from the two COBRA meetings that took place, and that he did not take personal charge of emergency COBRA meetings until early March.

His former chief aide Dominic Cummings has said he wanted to disappear to finish writing a book about Shakespeare – something Mr Johnson has denied – and that his boss was distracted from his duties with a “divorce to finalise”, “financial problems” and his then girlfriend wanting to “finalise the announcement of their engagement”.

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Cummings says PM was known as a ‘trolley’

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Johnson suggested he thought COVID was ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’

Did ‘toxic culture’ affect decision making?

The inquiry has also laid bare a “toxic culture” of backstabbing and contempt behind the scenes of Number 10 while COVID ripped through the nation. Mr Johnson is likely to face questions on this and what role in particular Mr Cummings played in fuelling it.

Explosive texts released to the inquiry reveal the-then top adviser derided a cabinet of “useless f***pigs”, wanted people sacked, complained about Mr Johnson’s own behaviour and spoke of “dodging stilettos from that c***” in reference to senior civil servant Helen MacNamara.

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Boris Johnson was ‘very confident the UK would sail through’, says former minister Helen MacNamara at the Covid inquiry

Mr Cummings insisted he was not misogynistic because he was “much ruder about men”, but Ms MacNamara said that Downing Street under Mr Johnson, was “sexist”, “toxic” and “awful” in a way she had never experienced in government before.

She said this affected decision making as issues including how to help domestic abuse victims, childcare problems and access to abortions were largely ignored.

Dominic Cummings to Boris Johnson
Dominic Cummings to Boris Johnson

She also said the “macho, confident” nature of people in Mr Johnson’s No 10 team meant the government was “unbelievably bullish” early on, with people “laughing at the Italians” when they started to impose restrictions and believing the UK would “sail through” the pandemic.

Did Johnson really say ‘let the bodies pile high’?

Mr Johnson is also likely to face questions on his attitude to older people and whether he really said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than go back into a lockdown in autumn 2020. Reports he said this first emerged in 2021, but they were rubbished by Mr Johnson at the time.

However last month his one-time chief of staff Lord Udny-Lister told the inquiry that Mr Johnson did make the statement in September 2020, during discussions about implementing another lockdown. He called it an “unfortunate turn of phrase” but said the government was trying to avoid further restrictions “given the already severe impact on the economy and education”.

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Boris Johnson said he would rather ‘let the bodies pile high’ than impose another lockdown in September 2020, according to one of his most veteran aides

Similar comments suggesting a cavalier attitude to the elderly have also been attributed to Mr Johnson, including a claim by the former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance that he had suggested “COVID is nature’s way of dealing with old people” and was obsessed with them “accepting their fate”.

Were you bamboozled by the science?

One of the most extraordinary claims made by Mr Cummings to the inquiry was that Mr Johnson struggled to understand the science and asked advisers whether COVID could be eliminated by blowing a hairdryer up your nose.

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The COVID inquiry continues with evidence from former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance

Sir Patrick told the inquiry Mr Johnson would be the first to admit science was not his “forte”, while an extract from his contemporaneous diary said the prime minister was at times “bamboozled” by the data.

Was Carrie Johnson really in charge?

One of the most damaging claims about Mr Johnson’s leadership abilities was that his wife Carrie “was the real person in charge”. This was said by Simon Case, head of the civil service, in heated texts to Mr Johnson’s top aides amid discussions about imposing circuit breaker lockdowns in autumn 2020.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and partner Carrie Symonds in the stands during the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday March 7, 2020. See PA story RUGBYU England. Photo credit should read: Adam Davy/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only, No commercial use without prior permission
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and partner Carrie Symonds in the stands at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday, 7 March 2020

Mr Johnson is likely to face questions on this and other assessments about his leadership, including that he “cannot lead”, was indecisive, allowed Mr Cummings to have too much influence and blew “hot and cold” on major issues.

Do you regret partygate?

Mr Johnson could also face questions on the partygate scandal that triggered his downfall as prime minister and eventual exit from parliament.

While news of lockdown-busting parties did not emerge until after restrictions were lifted, he may be asked if he regrets presiding over a culture of rule-breaking and whether this impacted his decision making.

Why did Matt Hancock stay in post?

Mr Hancock has been criticised by a number of witnesses who have accused him of being overconfident and saying things that weren’t true (something Mr Hancock has denied).

Mr Johnson may be asked why he kept him in post, given both his chief adviser and the head of the civil service Mark Sedwill, at the time, believed he should be sacked.