Transcript of Module 2 Public Hearing on 06 December 2023

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith, before we start, I would like to express my concern about reports in the press over the last few days 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’s meant to be confidential between the witness, the Inquiry and the core participants. 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 hearings 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.

Mr Keith: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Keith: Well, my Lady, today’s witness is Boris Johnson.

Mr Boris Johnson


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you commence your evidence, please, by giving us your full name.

Mr Boris Johnson: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Lead Inquiry: Thank you, Mr Johnson. Thank you for attending today, and for the provision of your witness statement, INQ000255836. It’s dated 31 August, as you know, and it contains the usual declaration as to the truth of its contents on the final page, I think, page 233.

Mr Johnson, you were, of course, Prime Minister between 24 July 2019, when you were invited to form an administration following the resignation of Theresa May MP as leader of the Conservative Party, and 6 September 2022, you having announced your resignation earlier that year on 7 July. Is that correct?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, it is, Mr Keith.

By your leave, my Lady, 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 –

Lady Hallett: Please stop, Mr Johnson.

Please sit down. Please sit down or I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the hearing room. I’m sorry, if you don’t sit down, I’m going to ask the ushers to get you to leave. Right, ushers, could you ask them to leave.


Mr Boris Johnson: Could I say, by your leave, that I understand the feelings of these victims and their families, and I am deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering of those victims, and their families. And grateful though I am to the hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers and many other public servants and people in all walks of life who helped to protect our country throughout a dreadful pandemic, I do hope that this Inquiry will help to get the answers to the very difficult questions that those victims and those families are rightly asking, so that we can protect ourselves better, help each other to help protect ourselves better in the future, and prevent further suffering.

And it’s if not too impertinent, may I say, as the person, as you rightly say, Mr Keith, who set up this Inquiry, how grateful I am to you for what you’re doing and for the immense care that you’re plainly taking.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Keith: Mr Johnson, just a few more questions more, please, in relation to your career.

On 9 June 2023, did you announce your intention to stand down as the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip? You then, I think, formally resigned the following Monday, 12 June, when you were appointed Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern. You were, of course, previously Foreign Secretary and Mayor of London.

You correctly observe that you yourself announced the institution of this statutory Inquiry on 12 May 2021. You ordered the institution of a full and independent public inquiry, did you not?

Mr Boris Johnson: I did, Mr Keith, and I believe that’s the right way forward.

Lead Inquiry: When you made that announcement, you said this:

“Amid such tragedy, the state has an obligation to examine its actions as rigorously and candidly as possible …”

The number of deaths across the United Kingdom, calculated whether by registration on the death certificate “through Covid” or the measure of excess deaths, is now over 230,000. By any measure, Mr Johnson, that is a shocking figure and a terrible loss of life. Is that the tragedy to which you were referring when you said, in this tragedy, “the state has an obligation to examine its actions”?

Mr Boris Johnson: That is certainly the core of the tragedy, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Do you agree that if the protection of life is the pre-eminent duty that every government owes to its citizens, then the number of those who died is an important, if not the most important, marker against which your administration must be measured?

Mr Boris Johnson: I certainly think it’s the – it was – what we were trying to prevent was the loss of life, absolutely.

Lead Inquiry: The virus left in its wake, of course, not just death but injury and misery, and indirectly through the lockdowns it left pain and incalculable economic and societal damage. Were those and are those impacts which you also envisaged this Inquiry would look at when you ordered its institution?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: Do you accept, and we may, I think, presume from your opening remarks that you do, that the bereaved and those who suffered, of whom there are very many in number, are entitled to no less than an absolutely full and rigorous scrutiny?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: When you made that announcement, you also said that this process will place the state’s actions under the microscope, and the government would be required to disclose all relevant information. In light of those words, could I just ask you, please, to confirm what your approach has been to the disclosure of your own Covid related emails, WhatsApps and notes?

Mr Boris Johnson: I’ve done my best to give everything of any conceivable relevance.

Lead Inquiry: Has that always been your position, Mr Johnson?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000265619, please, page 68.

This is a WhatsApp between your former permanent secretary in Number 10 and then latterly Cabinet Secretary and your principal private secretary, Simon Case, and respectively Martin Reynolds, and the Cabinet Secretary said:

“[The Prime Minister] is mad if he doesn’t think his WhatsApps will become public via Covid Inquiry … he was clearly not in the mood for that discussion tonight!”

That date, 20 December 2021, was just five days after you had, in fact, appointed my Lady as the Chair of this Inquiry. Was there a debate at that time within government as to whether or not your WhatsApps should be disclosed and, if so, whether or not they would become public by virtue of their disclosure in this process?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t remember that conversation to which the Cabinet Secretary is referring, and I’ve handed over all the relevant WhatsApps.

Lead Inquiry: The Inquiry has indeed requested all the key Covid-related texts, WhatsApps and so on from January 2020 to February 2022, and it must be made absolutely clear that throughout the course of the litigation in the summer and throughout these proceedings, you have made available, it would seem, everything in your possession.

You made clear, I think, through your solicitors, however, that you had a phone which you used from May 2021, and you’ve made available the WhatsApps and the emails from that phone, therefore, between May 2021 and February 2022, the end of the period that the Inquiry was requesting about.

But following a well publicised security breach, you had not been able –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – to access the previous phone because you’d stopped using it and you were fearful that if you tried to access it you’d delete its data. Is that right?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: Were you able to get access, ultimately, to the contents of that first phone, the old phone?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, so we sent it off to some technical people and they activated it.

Lead Inquiry: Was there a time gap, as your solicitors have described it, on that phone, a period between 30 January 2020 and June 2020 during which time the WhatsApps have not been –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – capable of being reinstalled –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – and disclosed?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: Do you know why your phone was missing those 5,000-odd WhatsApps?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t know the exact reason, but it looks as though it’s something to do with the app going down, and then coming up again, but somehow not – automatically erasing all the things between that date, when it went down, and the moment when it was last backed up. So I – I can’t give you the technical explanation, but that’s the best I’m able to give.

Lead Inquiry: The technical report that your solicitors kindly provided demonstrates that there may have been a factory reset of the phone at the end of January 2020 and then an attempt to reinstall the contents later in June 2020. May I just ask you this: was it you, if that was a factory reset that was done, that tried to reset the phone or not?

Mr Boris Johnson: A factory reset?

Lead Inquiry: There was a – there is a device or a capability on the phone which allows its contents to be entirely reset. That wasn’t you?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t remember any such thing.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

During the course of the litigation this summer between the Inquiry and the Cabinet Office, did you of course make plain your stated wish that the WhatsApps which were the subject of that litigation should be disclosed –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – they being your own WhatsApps? All right.

Mr Boris Johnson: Can I, for the avoidance of doubt, make it absolutely clear I haven’t removed any WhatsApps from my phone, and I’ve given you everything that I think you need.

Lead Inquiry: I ask, Mr Johnson, because this issue has been trailed in the press –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah, no, I get it.

Lead Inquiry: – and it’s important that you have an opportunity of explaining why those WhatsApps are not available.

In your witness statement, at paragraph 10, you say, Mr Johnson, that unquestionably mistakes were made, and for those you say you unreservedly apologise. We have the statement there.

I’d like you, please, to set out in broad terms – of course we’ll be looking at detail of it later – what mistakes you refer to there, bearing in mind that we are only concerned in this module, Mr Johnson, with the core decision-making, with the lockdown decisions, the NPIs, the non-pharmaceutical interventions, and so on, not vaccines, therapeutics –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – antivirals.

Mr Boris Johnson: Okay.

Lead Inquiry: What mistakes do you unquestionably accept were made?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think if you look at my statement, I point out that we were relying so much on messaging to help contain the virus, and we needed a – the public to understand the message in as straightforward a way as possible. And they really did, by and large. One problem we had that I mention is that because of the very, you know, natural and proper right of the devolved administrations to have their own approach, sometimes there was a bit of – so the BBC News would have one message from Number 10, then a slightly different one from Scotland or wherever, and that – I think we need to sort that out in future. And, you know, I’m sure there are plenty of other things that we could have done differently, but I’ve no doubt we’ll come to them in the course of the examination.

Lead Inquiry: So your position today is, and you’ve appeared to refer to it as the first issue, that the primary mistake made rests in the context of the messaging and your communications with the devolved administrations?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, you asked me to cite a mistake that we made, I didn’t say that was the primary mistake, but –

Lead Inquiry: What primary mistakes, Mr Johnson, are you referring to in paragraph 10 when you say “There was terrible suffering”, but in relation to which “where we failed, I apologise again”? For what are you apologising in that statement?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think, just to go back to your main point, which is that so many people suffered, so many people lost their lives, inevitably in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes. I think it – I don’t want to try to anticipate the discussion which I’m sure we will get into about the timings of NPIs, of lockdowns … inevitably we got some things wrong. I think we were doing our best at the time, given what we knew, given the information I had available to me at the time, I think we did our level best. Were there things that we should have done differently? Unquestionably. But, you know, I would struggle to itemise them all before you now in a hierarchy, I’m afraid. I think it would be – I’d find it easier to try to explain what happened as we went through.

Lead Inquiry: You say in your witness statement:

“We – I – unquestionably made mistakes …”

Can you draw a distinction for us, please, between yourself personally and the government? To what extent do you accept –

Mr Boris Johnson: I take –

Lead Inquiry: – personal responsibility as opposed to accepting it on behalf of your administration?

Mr Boris Johnson: So I take personal responsibility for all the decisions that we made.

Lead Inquiry: It’s obvious, Mr Johnson, that many of the most difficult and momentous decisions rested upon your own shoulders as Prime Minister. Do you take responsibility for whatever my Lady makes of the speed of the government’s response in January, February, March of 2020?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: And the way in which the various moving parts of the government, the advisory committees, the departments, the agencies and so on, responded?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: Do you take responsibility for the lockdown decisions, whichever way they went, and their timeliness –

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: – whatever my Lady makes of them?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: The manner in which patients were discharged from hospitals into the care sector?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: The explosion of the virus within the residential care sector?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: The general speed at which the restrictions were eased?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: The Eat Out to Help Out scheme?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: And then latterly in 2020 the decision not to introduce a circuit-breaker in September or October or to introduce a tier system earlier, when the prevalence of the virus was lower, for good or ill?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, though we did have local restrictions from a very early date.

Lead Inquiry: You did.

May I just ask you, please, this question, also: you refer to mistakes; it’s very important that the Inquiry understands to what extent it’s accepted that there were mistakes as opposed to an acceptance that with hindsight the government could have done better. Do you mean there were failings, things or decisions that you got avoidably wrong, whether because they were the wrong decisions or because your management and leadership meant that the right decisions were less likely to be taken, or do you mean with hindsight you just could have done better?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, that’s a sort of deterministic question, isn’t it?

Lead Inquiry: Well, it’s an important one.

Mr Boris Johnson: I think the answer is that with hindsight it may be easy to see things that we could have done differently, or it may be possible to see things that we could have done differently. At the time, I felt, and I know that everybody else felt, that we were doing our best in very difficult circumstances to protect life and protect the NHS.

Lead Inquiry: It is impossible, and arguably improper, to attribute any individual death causally to any particular governmental decision, as I know you know, and no possible purpose would be served in such an exercise. But do you accept that overall the government decision-making, not the pandemic, but the government decision-making in response, led materially to there being a greater number of excess deaths in the United Kingdom than might otherwise have been the case?

Mr Boris Johnson: I can’t give you the answer to that question. I’m not sure. I notice the – that in your opening preamble a few months ago you produced a slide saying that the UK was, I think, second only to Italy for excess deaths.

Lead Inquiry: Correct.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s not, to the best of my knowledge, the case. And I think that many other – all I would say is that many other countries suffered terrible losses from Covid.

Lead Inquiry: They did.

Mr Boris Johnson: And the evidence that I’ve seen suggests that we were well down the European table and well down the world table. Though that is of course no comfort to the bereaved and their families, that seems to be the statistical reality.

Lead Inquiry: The evidence before my Lady is that the United Kingdom had one of the highest rates of excess death in Europe, almost all other Western European countries had a lower level of excess death.

Mr Boris Johnson: Not that I’ve seen.

Lead Inquiry: Italy was, tragically, in a worse position than the United Kingdom.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I don’t wish to contradict you, Mr Keith, but the evidence – the ONS data I saw put us, I think, about 16th or 19th in a table of 33.

Lead Inquiry: In Western Europe, we were one of the worst off, if not the second worst off.

You must have long reflected since that time why that was so. Why do you think that we had the rate of excess deaths in this country that we did ultimately have?

Mr Boris Johnson: As I say, I think that the statistics vary, and I think that the – every country struggled with a new pandemic, and I think the UK, from the evidence that I have seen, was well down the European table and obviously even further down the world table.

If I had to answer why I think we faced particular headwinds, I would say it was irrespective of government action. We have an elderly population, extremely elderly population, we do suffer sadly from lots of Covid-related comorbidities, and we are a very densely populated country, the second most densely populated country in Europe, and that – that did not help.

Lead Inquiry: Do you accept that government actions materially contributed to that outcome? It wasn’t just a matter of the state of the healthcare system, density, age of population and, in fact, the geographical location of the United Kingdom?

Mr Boris Johnson: Given that other countries have excellent healthcare systems and faced similar problems and ended up in a – statistically with more excess deaths per 100,000, the answer is I don’t know. I don’t know.

Lead Inquiry: You are obviously extremely well aware of the argument that the lockdown decisions themselves cumulatively and individually contributed to the number of excess deaths. What do you say to that?

Mr Boris Johnson: I say that I don’t know, but I’m aware of the arguments that are made. What I would say respectfully to people is that they were very, very difficult decisions, and the issue of the timeliness of lockdowns was clearly one that we considered very hard at the time, and you will have seen from the evidence that there were strong arguments against going too early into lockdowns, especially when it came to that first series of March NPIs. And you’ll remember the arguments that were made, two arguments, against early action, and they were the risk of behavioural fatigue and then the risk of bounceback or what you’ve called uncoiling of the spring, and they were made powerfully and they certainly had a big effect on me.

Lead Inquiry: Could you assist the Inquiry, please, with something about the nature of the heavy responsibility which rested on your shoulders. It is perhaps self-evident that only the most difficult and momentous decisions come from the Prime Minister.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: Were there any good or easy decisions to be made in this context?

Mr Boris Johnson: No. I can’t think of a single – well, I suppose, it was an easy decision to say that we should go ahead with the roll-out of both Pfizer and AstraZeneca as soon as they had been approved by the MHRA. But there were no – when it came to the – forgive me, Mr Keith, but when it came to the balance of the need to protect the public and protect the NHS and the damage done by lockdowns, it was incredibly difficult.

Lady Hallett: Pause there, please. I do understand emotions are running very high, I do, and I think it’s most unfortunate when I have to ask people to leave, but we have to ensure that this hearing is effective, and it’s got to be effective not just for people in this hearing room but for people watching on the online streaming. So, please, make sure your behaviour is appropriate to a public hearing of a statutory inquiry. Thank you.

Sorry to interrupt.

Mr Boris Johnson: No, it’s fine.

Mr Keith: We’ll look at the nature of the particular decisions in greater detail later, but broadly speaking, so that we know the lie of the land and we know how you approached these issues, were the majority of the most momentous decisions, the decisions, for example, to impose the lockdowns and social distancing measures and so on, were they decisions that were in practice made by you –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – even if they were affirmed or endorsed by the Cabinet later, or were they decisions that were entirely open-endedly made by Cabinet?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s a very good question, because I think it was both. A huge number of decisions, because they had to be taken so fast, were funnelled up directly to me, but there were also a large number of decisions, and I do think this maybe hasn’t come out as much as it should, that were the subject of exhaustive Cabinet discussion.

Lead Inquiry: In his witness statement, Michael Gove has said that the wider Cabinet was brought into decisions at times too late and too little. Mr Javid has said in his witness statement that the Cabinet was designed, in his view, to place Dominic Cummings and the Prime Minister as the decision-makers, to centralise power in Number 10.

In his own witness statement, Mr Cummings has said that the Cabinet was largely irrelevant to policy or execution, on account of the leaks, your inability to chair it, and because it was seen by Number 10 as not being a serious place for serious discussion.

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t think that’s true. I think there were some really excellent Cabinet discussions about the trade-offs. If I had to make a comment about Cabinet as a whole in terms of the speed of lockdowns, which was your – what we’re talking about, I think it probably would be fair to say that the Cabinet was, on the whole, more reluctant to impose NPIs necessarily than I was. That wasn’t true for every member of the Cabinet, but that would be a general comment.

Lead Inquiry: The lockdown decision of 23 March 2020 was debated, as you rightly say, at great length on the Sunday, on the Monday by the various bodies but in particular COBR, but it was debated in COBR on Monday the 23rd, a public announcement we’ll all recall was made that day, that evening in fact, and then it went to Cabinet on the Tuesday. So in relation to the first lockdown decision, it’s obvious that Cabinet debated it after the event.

In relation to the second lockdown, that of November 2020, Mr Johnson, do you recall whether or not that decision was made by a Covid ministerial committee or by Cabinet?

Mr Boris Johnson: I’m afraid I can’t remember the sequence there. But just picking you up on the first – the first lockdown, which was actually a sort of crescendo of measures, I’m fairly certain we had a long Cabinet call, at least, to discuss it.

Lead Inquiry: Well, we’ll look at that in detail later.

The Inquiry’s heard a great deal of evidence, Mr Johnson, about the way in which your secretaries of state would naturally and permissibly come at the same issue, whether to have a lockdown, whether to ease, whether to have a tier system and the like, from different angles. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care understandably would promote the public health consequences, and the need to act in the public health. The Chancellor would frequently promote the economic considerations. But all, it’s obvious, were aware to greater or lesser degree of the societal and economic harm that would result from the decisions that you were having to contemplate making.

Who ultimately had to weigh up and determine the competing public interest considerations, public health, societal harm, economic damage and so on? On whose shoulders rested that debate?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s the job of the Prime Minister, and there’s only the Prime Minister that can do that, but I think that that wasn’t actually a bad way of doing it, to have different interests represented by different secretaries of state and different departments.

Lead Inquiry: Presumably you needed the advice of your close advisers, Cabinet Secretary, and those in the civil service, in addition to the advice that you were receiving from –

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: – your secretaries of state.

Could you give, please, the Inquiry an indication as to the identity of the persons upon whom you were most reliant in that debate, in that weighing-up exercise?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I don’t – I don’t wish to embarrass distinguished public official by naming them, my Lady, I don’t know what the –

Lead Inquiry: Well –

Mr Boris Johnson: I’ve found that civil servants on the whole are quite happy to remain anonymous, but I can certainly tell you that I had superb deputy private secretary, a mathematician, an economist, who is brilliant at understanding healthcare issues, and an absolutely brilliant private secretary for healthcare.

Lead Inquiry: The Inquiry’s obviously heard from a number of advisers and civil servants –

Mr Boris Johnson: I think you’ve heard from both those individuals.

Lead Inquiry: – so there’s no debate about their identity, Mr Johnson.

Lady Hallett: I think you may need to make the question a bit more specific, Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: The evidence is, Mr Johnson, that you received advice from advisers in Number 10 –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – obviously your chief adviser, Mr Cummings.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: You received advice from the Cabinet Secretary, firstly –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – Mark Sedwill and then latterly Simon Case.

You received advice from the CMO –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and then the general Chief Scientific Adviser –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I’m sorry, I should have cited them first, yes.

Lead Inquiry: It’s apparent that on top of the formal advisory structures, the meetings with the CMO and GCSA, the meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, the meetings with your ministers, you had a profusion of meetings with your chief adviser, Mr Cummings, with your Cabinet Secretary, with your principal private secretary, and so on. There were a huge number of rolling meetings with your innermost group of advisers, and I want to know to what extent, therefore, you came to rely upon them in the ultimate decision-making process?

Mr Boris Johnson: I of course relied on the advice I was given, but the way it works is advisers advise and ministers decide, and that was what happened.

Lead Inquiry: You received a great deal of advice from the Chief Medical Officer –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and the Government Chief Scientific Adviser; they were a vital source of advice –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – that’s obvious. You were aware that SAGE met hundreds of times?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: That’s to say the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Did you ever read their minutes or were you wholly reliant on the CMO and the GCSA to relay to you what SAGE had said?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think I did once or twice look at the – or maybe more than that, I looked at what SAGE had actually said, and SAGE certainly produced a lot of documentation. But I think that the CSA and the CMO did an outstanding job of leading SAGE and of distilling their views and conveying them to me.

Lead Inquiry: The SAGE minutes were described as consensus minutes, because they were designed to be read at speed, to be able to get to the heart of the issue immediately on reading them, and to ensure that the advice that was being given –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – would be readily and speedily understood. Did you ever think of calling, as a general practice, for those minutes so that you could yourself read them? Many of them were only eight or nine pages long.

Mr Boris Johnson: As I say, I think I did from time to time look at the consensus minutes, and I think in retrospect it might have been valuable to try to hear the SAGE conversation unpasteurised itself, but I didn’t – I was more than content with the very clear summaries that I was getting from the CSA and the CMO.

Lead Inquiry: There were hundreds of consensus minutes but you read only or were given only a fraction of them?

Mr Boris Johnson: That sounds right to me, yes.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

We’ll look in detail at some of the scientific debates that engaged government, particularly in the middle of March: behavioural fatigue, herd immunity, the debate about the reasonable worst-case scenario, and so on.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Did you not think of looking at – the scientific horse in the mouth and seeing what was actually being said by the government’s primary scientific advisory committee on these issues, when, as now appears to be the case, you were – you became engaged particularly in the debate of behavioural fatigue? Why didn’t you call for the primary material?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that’s a good question. I was very, very much impressed and – by and dependent upon the CMO and the CSA, both of whom are outstanding experts in their field, and it felt to me that I couldn’t do better than that.

Lead Inquiry: The CMO and the CSA were of course concerned with medicine and science, and SAGE was concerned, as it says on the tin, with science.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, the CMO is a professor of public health. I mean, he knows an awful lot about epidemiology and public behaviour in an epidemic.

Lead Inquiry: He does.

You had no advisory structure around you, however, and by contrast, that dealt with matters such as the economic damage –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – that would be done by the lockdown decisions. There was no pandemic or civil emergency or societal advisory body which might be thought to be analogous to SAGE. In hindsight, and with the passage of time, do you suggest that there was an absence of a proper advisory structure to deal with the other issues and the other considerations which weighed in the balance when you came to make those final decisions?

Mr Boris Johnson: I’ve thought about that a great deal, and I think in the end that there is such a body, and it’s called HM Treasury, and that is what they do. And you referred earlier on, Mr Keith, to the competing perspectives of the Whitehall departments and the secretaries of state, and I think for all its difficulties, I think it – it did work well in allowing me to get a balance of the argument.

Lead Inquiry: The evidence appears already to suggest that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Her Majesty’s Treasury had considerable influence over the ultimate decision-making process because the Chancellor would come and see you in bilateral meetings, there were bilateral meetings in the week of 16 March –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – before the first lockdown decision, in late October, before the second, in the summer of 2021, and then again in December of 2021 in relation to Omicron, and also Eat Out to Help Out.

But that advice was given to you by the Chancellor and Her Majesty’s Treasury in a way that wasn’t openly transparent in the way that the SAGE advice was provided to you. There were no minutes disclosed, of the advice that you were being given, to the public. There was no regular production of material or any kind of published transparent economic analysis provided to you. Do you think in hindsight that that was an error?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that there was certainly transparent economic analysis of the cost of some of the measures that we were obliged to enact, and the fall in GDP, the cost of the CJRS, the – and the other schemes was plain for all to see. That was all – that was all public.

Of course what was not public and is not traditionally public is ministerial conversations and discussion between ministers. But, again, I think the perspective that I was being offered by the Treasury was a very useful one, just as a perspective of the Department of Health was a very useful one.

Lead Inquiry: The material, so that’s to say diary entries and read-outs from minutes and so on, Mr Johnson, show that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would, in this difficult context of making the ultimate decisions about lockdowns and easing and tiers and so on, often get the last word by way of a bilateral meeting that would take place just before you made a final decision, and also that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was occasionally excluded from meetings when public health matters were being discussed. Were you aware of that?

Mr Boris Johnson: I – I think that’s – I don’t – I reject that characterisation of what took place. The overwhelming priority of the government was protect the NHS, save lives. That was our objective. And that was where my officials were coming from, that was what we wanted to do. And I think it was important in that context to – you know, there were lots of things we had to do that were very difficult, very costly, and it was right to have endless conversations with the Treasury, which is what we did.

Lead Inquiry: You know of course that a great deal of evidence has been given to my Lady about the operation and the competence of your administration. It needs to be stated absolutely plainly that the Inquiry has absolutely no interest in the salaciousness or the nature of Mr Cummings’ linguistic style or the WhatsApps. But it does have an interest, of course, in whether or not his communications revealed an abusive and misogynistic impact. The WhatsApps and the texts shed a direct light on the competence of the government, how well or not the government machinery operated, what you all thought about each other, and what some of you thought privately about the decisions that were being taken.

We’re going to look in detail at them later, but it’s fair to say that, in the round, that material paints –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – an appalling picture, not all the time, but at times, of incompetence and disarray.

Mr Boris Johnson: Can I comment on that?

Lead Inquiry: Please.

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that the two things need to be separated out there. I think it is certainly true that this Inquiry has – and I’m glad of it – dredged up a phenomenal quantity of the type of material that would never have been available to any previous Inquiry into doings in Number 10, because it’s WhatsApp communications of a kind that would not have been possible, and that’s a good thing because you can get a texture of the – a feeling for the relationships and the human beings.

I would make a couple of points.

First of all, a lot of the language, the style that you refer to is completely unknown to me, or indeed to anybody else not on the – on that group. I’ve apologised to one particular person who suffered abuse in that – in one of those publicised WhatsApp exchanges. But I would make a distinction between the type of language used and the decision-making processes of the government, and what we got done. And I would submit that any powerful and effective government has – and I think of the Thatcher government or the Blair government – has a lot of challenging and competing characters whose views about each other might not be fit to print, but who get an awful lot done, and that’s what we did.

Lead Inquiry: Your own Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, he was of course asked to move on, and we’ll come to that later, in May 2020, described, according to Sir Patrick Vallance, your administration as “brutal and useless” and observed that it was hard to motivate people in Number 10 in such terrible times if they were being “shot in the back”.

That would appear to be a reference to the doings, as you say, of Number 10, to the process, and the operation of government, as opposed to the atmospherics.

Would you not agree?

Mr Boris Johnson: Again, I think that actually what you’re looking at in all this – 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 that would have been the same of any administration facing the same sort of challenges on that scale.

Lead Inquiry: But do you accept that there is a considerable body of material which addresses not just their private thoughts of the other individuals in government, of them personally, but relates to the performance of government, to the way in which your administration actually operated? Do you accept that as a general proposition?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I do, and I think that was a good and a healthy thing, because we needed constant – given the scale of what we were facing, we needed constantly to challenge ourselves, and constantly to try to do better.

Lead Inquiry: Your own chief adviser, Mr Cummings, described on 4 May something the government had done as being the best success of the “whole criminally incompetent government performance”. How could that be a good thing?

Mr Boris Johnson: Because what he is trying to do is to – he’s – it’s not for me to explain his quotation, you can ask him yourself, but what we were generally trying to do was to make sure that we delivered the best possible service for the people of the UK, who were going through an absolutely terrible, terrible time, and it would not have been right to have a load – if we’d had a load of WhatsApps saying, “Aren’t we doing brilliantly, folks, isn’t this going well?” I think your criticisms might have been, frankly, even more pungent.

Lead Inquiry: On 27 March, after Mr Cummings had asserted that Whitehall had “nearly killed huge numbers of people and cost millions [of] jobs” and that Mr Hancock had failed to get on top of the testing problems, you yourself said these three words, “Totally fucking hopeless”. That was a reference to the performance of an important part of government?

Mr Boris Johnson: I’d stress the word “nearly” in that –

Lead Inquiry: No, it’s your response, Mr Johnson.

Mr Boris Johnson: – and I would say that my job was not to – not uncritically to accept that everything we were doing was good, though I – as it happens, as I said to you, I do think that there were – the country as a whole had notable achievements during the crisis. My job was to try to get a load of quite disparate, quite challenging characters to keep going and – through a long period – and to keep doing their level best to protect the country. That was my job.

Lead Inquiry: Do you accept the evidence from Helen MacNamara, about which you will be aware, and also from former Cabinet Secretaries that Mr Cummings himself contributed to such a toxic atmosphere that civil servants simply didn’t want to work in the heart of government? Helen MacNamara said the relationships at Number 10 and the Cabinet Office had a real and damaging impact. You were told directly by Simon Case on 2 July lots of “top-drawer people” had refused to come to work because of the toxic reputation of your – I emphasise “your” – operation.

Were you aware that there were individuals, civil servants and advisers, who were not prepared to work in your administration because of the atmosphere and the working relationships which were in play?

Mr Boris Johnson: First of all, no. Second – I was not aware of that. Secondly, I didn’t see any sign of that. I saw brilliantly talented people. When we wanted – when we advised for a post, when we wanted to recruit for a position in my private office, we had, as far as I could see, no difficulty getting wonderful people to step forward.

I think, if I might make one – I think one self-criticism, or another self-criticism, I think that the gender balance of my team should have been better, and if – to your earlier question, looking back at it, when I was running London, it was great, and it was 50/50, and it was a very harmonious team. I think sometimes during the pandemic too many meetings were too male dominated, if I’m absolutely honest with you. And I think that was a – I tried sometimes to rectify it, I tried to recruit a former colleague from City Hall, but I think that was a – that was something we should have done better.

Lead Inquiry: Simon Case, who was then the permanent secretary in Number 10, WhatsApped you yourself on 2 July to say that lots of people, lots of top-drawer people had refused to come because of the “toxic reputation of [your] operation”.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I don’t remember that.

Lead Inquiry: What did you do?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t remember that, and my impression was that the – we had no difficulty recruiting the best possible people.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have, please, INQ000048313, page 16, on the screen. These are communications between Mr Cummings and yourself in May 2020, we’re concerned with the bottom half of the page.

Mr Boris Johnson: Sorry, can you expand it, because I can’t –

Lead Inquiry: Yes. 7 May:

“Hancock is unfit for this job. The incompetence, the constant lies, the obsession with media bullshit …”

Reference to testing:

“… you must ask him when we will get to 500k per day and where is your plan for testing …”

If we can scroll back out.

Mr Boris Johnson: But, sorry, I don’t –

Lead Inquiry: Just pause a second, Mr Johnson.

If you then scroll in, please, to the bottom half of the page, the last part, Mr Cummings says:

“It will certainly be a cock up like everything else but … it will be far from the worst of our cockups over next 8 weeks.

“You need to think … of binning hancock.”

And so on and so forth.

You cannot suggest that you were unaware of the opinion taken by your chief adviser over your Secretary of State for Health –

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: – you cannot suggest you were unaware of the concerns expressed by your Cabinet Secretary about the toxic reputation of your operation, because he WhatsApped you directly. You cannot suggest that there weren’t grave concerns being expressed in Downing Street that there were people who simply would not come and work for you because of the atmosphere you allowed to develop.

Mr Boris Johnson: So, first of all, in politics, there’s never a time when you’re not – if you’re Prime Minister, you are constantly being lobbied by somebody to sack somebody else. It’s just what, I’m afraid, happens, and it’s part of life. Everybody’s constantly militating against some other individual for some reason of their own. It’s just – I’m afraid that’s the nature of it.

It is perfectly true that this adviser in particular thought – had a low opinion of the Health Secretary. I thought he was wrong. I stuck by the Health Secretary. I thought the Health Secretary worked very hard and, whatever, he may have had defects, but I thought that he was doing his best in very difficult circumstances, and I thought he was a good communicator.

Lead Inquiry: Could we have INQ000303245, your first and then your second Cabinet Secretary communicate by WhatsApp, page 9.

Mr Case refers at the top of the page to how you have told Mr Cummings outright to stop talking to the media in his presence:

“This place is just insane, Zero discipline.”

And then at the bottom half of the page:

“These people are so mad … madly self-defeating.”

“It’s hard to ask people to [march] [it should be] to the sound of gunfire if they’re shot in the back.”

Then the Cabinet Secretary – the Cabinet Secretary is the head of the civil service, is he or she not?

“I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well equipped to run a country.”

That’s not a matter of atmospherics or lobbying or part of the general day in, day out friction within government, is it?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I think it is, and I think that if – as I say, if you’d had the views of the mandarinate about the Thatcher government, in unexpurgated WhatsApps, my Lady, I think you would have found that they were pretty fruity. It’s – WhatsApp conversation is intended to be, though clearly it isn’t, ephemeral, it tends to – to the pejorative and the hyperbolical, and I think that – the worst vice, in my view, would have been to have had an operation where everybody was so deferential and so reluctant to make waves that they never expressed their opinion, they never challenged and they never doubted.

It was much more important to have a group of people who were willing to doubt themselves and to doubt each other. And I think that that was creatively useful rather than the reverse.

Lead Inquiry: Some of these senior advisers didn’t just lack deference, to use your word, Mr Johnson, they doubted you, and they doubted your ability and your competence, as you now know from having seen the material.

Could we have, please, INQ000273901, page 188.

That’s from 19 September. Page 229, there is a reference to leadership position.

Mr Boris Johnson: Would you like me to comment?

Lead Inquiry: Yes, I’m just going to put, because it’s right and proper and fair that you’re asked to give your –

Mr Boris Johnson: Sure.

Lead Inquiry: – response to some of the material which has been produced to this Inquiry.

Then page 245:

“[The Prime Minister] … begins to argue for letting it all rip … ‘they have had a good innings’.

And there is a reference there to “lack of leadership”, the last line:

“This all feels like a complete lack of leadership.”

Mr Boris Johnson: Look –

Lead Inquiry: Let me put the question.

Whether or not this significant number of advisers correctly stated the position, whether or not this was genuine, whether or not there were significant failings in your own and your government’s competence, would you accept that it is extraordinary that the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, its chief adviser, its Cabinet Secretaries, its Deputy Cabinet Secretary, should all be commenting in these terms about –

Mr Boris Johnson: No.

Lead Inquiry: – competence and about performance and you?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, I think this is wholly to be expected, and this is a period in which we are – where the country is going through a resurgence of the virus, you’re looking at the October period, and the – Patrick, the CSA, talks about inconsistency, and we’ve just got to face the reality – I’ve got to face the reality as Prime Minister that the – the virus seems to be refusing to be suppressed by the measures we’ve used so far, we’re going to need different measures, we’ve come out of lockdown, we’re going into the tiering system. Of course we’re – of course we’re changing, but so did the collective understanding of the science.

And if you look back at what happened during Covid, we had radically different views over the period, over the efficacy of masks, over whether asymptomatic transmission could take place. We had a totally different view within months about whether ventilators would be needed. I was told to begin with we needed – 25% of patients would need ventilators, that turned out not to be true.

Then on this particular issue, you’ve got the scientists calling for us to go early and go hard, and this takes us back to your initial line of questioning, when earlier on they had been saying expressly that if you go hard too soon then you have two problems, behavioural fatigue and bounceback. And the problem that I was facing, and it was an appalling problem, in October, was that we didn’t have therapeutics, or we didn’t have – well, we had some therapeutics, but we didn’t have a vaccine, we didn’t have a way out, a medical solution, we were being forced to use NPIs, and at this particular moment – I’m sure we’ll come to the October/November lockdowns – my anxiety was that we were going to have to do the same thing over and over again. And I think what those notebooks reflect and what all those comments reflect is the deep anxiety of a group of people doing their level best who cannot see an easy solution and are naturally self-critical and critical of others.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

It’s obvious that these things were said at the time, you say not to you, although I’ve put to you a WhatsApp which was sent directly to you, and there are obviously others.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, there’s a WhatsApp that claims to have said something directly to me.

Lead Inquiry: Well, the WhatsApp has been taken, of course, from the material which you have provided and from obviously the phones from other people who were interlocutors –

Mr Boris Johnson: Sorry, if I may correct you, Mr Keith, what that WhatsApp was, was a WhatsApp from the Cabinet Secretary saying that he’d had told me directly something; I don’t think I saw the WhatsApp directly to me.

Lead Inquiry: Mark Sedwill on 2 July WhatsApped you directly to say lots of top-drawer people had refused to come because of the toxic reputation of your operation.

Mr Boris Johnson: I’m sorry.

Lead Inquiry: Whether this material indicates a significant failing at the heart of government and in failures of competence, they undoubtedly – these opinions were expressed at the time, and you no doubt accept you’re responsible for that state of affairs.

You must have reflected, Mr Johnson, long and hard, both whilst in office in your dealings with Mr Cummings and afterwards, on what lessons can be learned from the way in which power is exercised and the way in which government performs at the highest level. Have you reflected upon whether or not the system of SPADs, the system by which you receive advice from your political advisers needs to be reformed? Have you reflected on the functions and powers and the extent of powers of SPADs or on the competence of the ministers whose advice you accepted?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think with hindsight there’s all sorts of things you could do differently. I think at the time I decided that it was best to have an atmosphere of challenge with some strong characters giving me advice, and I valued that advice.

Lead Inquiry: Well, with hindsight, you can now see what was going on, and you’ve had this material for some time; have you reflected on whether or not the Inquiry could, if my Lady sees fit, make recommendations about the way in which a character such as Mr Cummings, about whom some extremely strong views have been expressed, should be in the position that he was, views on whether or not the Prime Minister had access to the correct and proper forms of advice? Are these not issues that you’ve thought about?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, but I think overwhelmingly that I did have access to the correct and proper forms of advice. And if you ask upon whom I relied for that advice, it was the CMO and the CSA, together with the experts – well, the officials in my private office.

Lead Inquiry: You lost confidence in your Cabinet Secretary in May 2020, did you not?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, he asked to step aside.

Lead Inquiry: Did you lose confidence in your Cabinet Secretary in May 2020?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah, he asked to step aside.

Lead Inquiry: Did you lose confidence in your chief adviser, whom you described as engaging in an “orgy of narcissism” at the heart of your administration?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think he also stepped aside.

Lead Inquiry: Did you lose confidence in those senior advisers, Mr Johnson, and effectively dispose of them both?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, they both stepped aside from government, but it was a very difficult, very challenging period, people were getting – as you can see from the WhatsApps, they were getting very frazzled, because they – they were frustrated, Covid kept coming at us in wave after wave, and it was very, very hard to fight it, and people were doing their level best. And I don’t – you know, when people are critical of the guy at the top or they’re critical of each other, that’s a reflection of the difficulty of the circumstances. When it became easier, in the spring, and after the – during the vaccine roll-out, people’s tone changed, of course it did, but it was a reflection of the agony that the country was going through, and that the government was going through.

Mr Keith: My Lady, is that a convenient moment? I’m about to turn to a completely separate topic.

Lady Hallett: Right. I shall return at 11.20.

Mr Keith: Thank you.

(11.07 am)

(A short break)

(11.20 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Mr Johnson, we’re now going to turn to look at the events of January and February.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In your witness statement you say that Mr Hancock spoke to you about his concerns around about 7 January, you say he rang you again on 22 January. To put this in its chronological, proper chronological place, the first SAGE had taken place on 22 January, the first COBR on 24 January.

He says, however, in his witness statement, that he called you directly on at least four occasions during January to try to impress upon you his concerns. Although he does not say so, the implication is that he was at pains to try to alert you to the problem as he saw it and he was required to raise the matter with you repeatedly.

Do you recall a repeated number of attempts to raise the alarm with you in that way?

Mr Boris Johnson: I certainly recall the conversation on 7 January, and the – the context, and I remember thinking about it and saying to him, “Well, you know, keep an eye on it”, and I’ve set out in my statement my initial instincts about it.

I don’t, to be frank, remember all those conversations, but it’s true that we would have spoken on many occasions because we generally spoke quite a lot. I think that in that period, January really to the end of February, towards the end of February, Covid was pretty much like a cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand, and you didn’t know whether it was going to turn into a typhoon or not and – I certainly didn’t, I was unsure. And it became clear much later.

Lead Inquiry: The matter was first raised with your Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, formally on 21 January, which was the date in fact of the World Health Organisation first Novel Coronavirus Situation Report. Do you recall when the matter was first brought officially to your attention? You were obviously aware from news reports and you’d been aware from your conversations with Mr Hancock as to the possible crisis or the emergence of this virus in China, but when officially do you recall it was put before you?

Mr Boris Johnson: I’m sure it’s in my – in what I’ve submitted to the Inquiry, Mr Keith. I think certainly there are Cabinet discussions in January and in February, and a crescendo of activity about it, but in government it wasn’t yet being escalated to me as something of really truly national concern.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed. A COBR was convened, chaired by Mr Hancock, on 24 January, and then he chaired a further COBR meeting on 29 January, then 5 February, then 18 February, and then 26 February.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: It’s plain that was quite permissible, COBR doesn’t have to be chaired by a Prime Minister –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yep.

Lead Inquiry: – indeed it can be chaired by an official.

But the sheer frequency of those COBRs, there were then five COBRs within one month, all on the same issue of this emerging virus, didn’t the seriousness of the position in late January make itself plain to you? How could there have been a need for a COBR every week for five weeks in relation to an issue that didn’t require your direct involvement as the Prime Minister?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think for the reason you’ve given, which is that a COBR is a regular occurrence in government when there’s something that a particular government department is leading on, in this case it was health. The possibility of a coronavirus pandemic, which was only declared by the WHO on 12 March, was not something that had yet been – it hadn’t really broken upon the political world, certainly in my consciousness, as something of real potential – you know, a real potential national disaster and –

Lead Inquiry: Did you –

Mr Boris Johnson: – and, you know, in that period, end of January, beginning of February, end of January, beginning of February, it’s not much in the political world. I wasn’t asked about it, for instance, at all at PMQs.

Lead Inquiry: Were you aware that Mr Hancock was chairing COBRs to deal with a new and emerging respiratory virus on those five dates?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that I was aware that Matt was handling it. I couldn’t swear that I was aware that he was handling it in that way on all those particular dates. My instructions to him were to keep me posted and I would do whatever I could. By the end of the month, clearly by the end of February, I’m getting anxious about what we’re doing.

Lead Inquiry: We’ll come there.

Did you or do you recall having any debate with your advisers as to whether or not you should be chairing those COBRs or whether or not the seriousness of the position required you to chair the COBRs at the end of January and throughout February?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I think there’s an exchange – I remember talking to my private office and saying, you know, “This is clearly becoming an issue of national concern” –

Lead Inquiry: 24 February.

Mr Boris Johnson: Thank you.

Lead Inquiry: Before that date, for the month beforehand, did you think to say to your officials, “The Secretary of State for Health is chairing a COBR now on a weekly basis to do with a fatal viral pandemic which currently is just”~–

Mr Boris Johnson: But it hadn’t yet been declared as a pandemic, by the way.

Lead Inquiry: It hadn’t been declared as a pandemic, but by 16 January it had spread to Thailand and Japan. The scientists in the United Kingdom had reported on the 12% hospitalisation rate, it was clear from the material in government that only a small fraction of the infections in Wuhan were being debited, and there was already evidence of limited human-to-human transmission, all by 16 January. So in an overarching sense, why do you think that the Prime Minister, yourself, was not informed earlier as to those extremely worrying features of this emerging virus?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think the – here’s what I really think happened. I think that actually everybody, had they stopped to think about it, could see the implications of the data, the implications of what was happening in – the numbers, the percentage of fatalities in China, but I don’t think that they necessarily drew the right conclusions in that early phase, and – which is no fault of theirs, I think this – what happened was something that was completely outside people’s living memory. What we were dealing with is like a once-in-a-century event, and I just don’t think people computed the implications of that data, and it wasn’t really escalated – it wasn’t escalated to me as an issue of national concern until much later, and as you say, I said, “Look, I think I’ve got to chair these COBRs”.

Lead Inquiry: You were the Prime Minister. You’re obviously an extremely skilled politician and you have direct intimate experience of running government. From the viewpoint of the bereaved and those who were terribly damaged and harmed by this pandemic, how could a government have generally failed to stop and think? The system is there to make you think.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: The risk assessment processes and civil emergency procedures are there to make sure you don’t have to stop and think; it responds. But on this occasion, generally, and it’s not a personal point, generally the system did not stop and think and say, “This data shows there is a greater problem than we currently understand”.

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that’s – look, I think – I’ve tried in a way to give you the answer to that. I think that what really happened was outside our living experience, we hadn’t seen something like this for a century or more. But unfortunately what we did remember was not helpful, because what we did remember, what the system did remember was things like SARS and MERS and swine flu and so on, other zoonotic diseases that certainly had an impact in Asia, which is what we were seeing, but ultimately were relatively, if not wholly benign in the UK. And if I had to guess an answer to your question, Mr Keith, I would say that that was probably the default mindset, and, you know – and that was basically because of people were operating on the basis of their lived experience.

Lead Inquiry: So a failed mindset?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think it was a human natural response of people based on what they had themselves seen and observed in their lifetimes.

Lead Inquiry: But from the context, from the prism or from the viewpoint of the efficacy and the competence of the government response, regardless of the psychological issues that may have been preying on the minds of its constituent individual parts, the government failed to wake up, did it not? It failed to understand the significance of the crisis and therefore, it must follow, failed to take steps speedily enough?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that it would certainly be fair to say of the – of me, the entire Whitehall establishment, scientific community included, our advisers included, that we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge.

Lead Inquiry: The –

Mr Boris Johnson: And you can see that very clearly in those early days in March, from late February through to the sequence of NPIs, of lockdowns, you can see that we were all –

Lead Inquiry: System failure?

Mr Boris Johnson: We were all collectively underestimating how fast it had already spread in the UK. We underestimated – we put the peak too late, the first peak too late, we thought it would be in, you know, May/June. That was totally wrong. I don’t blame the scientists for that at all, but that was – that was the feeling, and it just turned out to be wrong.

Lead Inquiry: But the evidence before my Lady shows that the scientists, at least in part, were aware by the end of January of the hospitalisation rate, of the fact that the number of infections was being grossly underestimated, that there was self-sustaining human-to-human transmission. They were aware by the beginning of February that there was no effective test, trace, control, isolate system in the United Kingdom, so once the virus spread beyond China and became self-sustaining, there was no effective means of stopping its entry into the United Kingdom. That was all known to the scientists, at least by the beginning of February. Why wasn’t it known to the –

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, on the test, trace –

Lead Inquiry: – ministers?

Mr Boris Johnson: On the test, trace and isolate, on the whole diagnostics question, I think if you look at the evidence you can see that actually that we were being assured – I was being assured that we were in a good place on that, until, you know, it became clear that that wasn’t quite right.

So –

Lead Inquiry: Forgive me, I’m asking you about the system. If the scientists knew and had the data from which the government could draw the proper conclusions, why didn’t the government systemically –

Mr Boris Johnson: I think.

Lead Inquiry: – rise up in light of these alarm bells and do something?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I don’t wish to say that we were oblivious, because we weren’t, and actually a lot of work went on, a lot of planning, a huge amount of discussion, so I think – you know, I’m talking quite a lot now to – so I think the CMO first briefed me about it on about 4 February, and we talk about what could happen. SAGE, as you say, is meeting. It’s not as though nothing is happening.

Lead Inquiry: No.

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that what is going wrong, possibly, is that we are just underestimating the pace, the contagiousness of the disease. And, you know, you can see very clearly from the – that crucial moment of transition on – from 12 to 13 March how radically the scientific appreciation of the situation changed, because –

Lead Inquiry: I’m asking –

Mr Boris Johnson: – SAGE on one day was – I’m sorry –

Lead Inquiry: Forgive me, Mr Johnson, but I’m asking about January and February, we haven’t got to March yet.

When did you first become aware that the test and trace system, whilst extremely efficient in practice, could not be extended beyond the first few hundred cases, that it was a system designed for high –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – high-consequence infectious diseases –

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: – it dealt with travellers, it dealt with index cases, but it couldn’t really be expanded beyond 10 or 20 index cases and 500 or 600 contacts?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, you’re going to have to forgive me, Mr Keith, I can’t remember exactly when I – it became obvious that test and trace wasn’t going to work, but there came a point quite early on when I think Chris or Patrick said, “Look, you know, test and trace isn’t relevant anymore, because of the spread of the disease”, but I couldn’t date that.

Lead Inquiry: From which you then, of course, appreciated that if the virus spread outside China and was self-sustaining, and it had already of course –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, sorry, that was probably much later, in March.

Lead Inquiry: All right, you think that was later in March?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think so, but I couldn’t – I couldn’t swear to it.

Lead Inquiry: There is a box note on 30 January, INQ000136734, this is an email from a member of your office, Mr Johnson, to POST, the private office support team:

“Grateful if you could include the below in the box tonight.

“[Prime Minister],

“To be aware the Chinese government granted the permission for the flight to evacuate British nationals from Wuhan.”

So we’re concerned here with repatriation.

If we then go over the page, there is a reference to “The WHO … expected to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, and then:

“Also to be aware, the FCO is drawing down non-essential staff across the network in China.”

The day before, on 29 January, there was a COBR, INQ000056226. You weren’t, of course, at that COBR, Mr Johnson, you’ve explained how you didn’t chair a COBR until March.

If we look at page 5, we will see that the chair, Mr Hancock, hears from the CMO and Public Health England about the fatalities in China:

“… there was evidence of human to human transmission and Germany had four confirmed cases.”

And then at paragraph 3:

“The CMO said that the UK planning assumptions were based on the reasonable worst case scenario. There were two scenarios to be considered. The first was that the spread was confined within China, the second was that the spread was not limited to China and there would be a pandemic like scenario, with the UK impacted. The second scenario was plausible but it may take weeks to months.”

The CMO sets out there in COBR, and my Lady has heard evidence on this, that it was understood that if the second scenario came to pass, there would be a pandemic, because once control had been lost, a viral wave was inevitable?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: This is a COBR that takes place on that day, 29 January. The following day you receive a box note which appears to be solely concerned with repatriation. The question is: why were you, the Prime Minister, not being told directly, “This is a virus which if it escapes China will result in a pandemic, there is information already that it has a very serious fatality rate, and a very serious hospitalisation rate”? Why was that basic, lightbulb information not brought to your attention so that you could see the true nature of this emerging crisis?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think – I can’t give you the exact reason why that – that COBR was not brought to my attention, or that detail of the COBR was not brought to my attention. But I can – I can say that at that stage I think that even the concept of a pandemic did not necessarily imply to the Whitehall mind the kind of utter disaster that Covid was to become.

And if I may – and that may sound odd, but what I’m trying to say is that I think people were still operating in the – they were still thinking about things like an influenza pandemic or some of the other diseases that I’ve mentioned.

Lead Inquiry: Well, this material, along with a plethora of other documents, shows that the reasonable worst-case scenario was already being envisaged, and that was a reasonable worst-case scenario which denoted deaths to the tune of 800,000 people, so it couldn’t have been unknown to Whitehall, but you say the eventuality –

Mr Boris Johnson: No, I – right, well –

Lead Inquiry: – was not aware?

Mr Boris Johnson: I didn’t see that figure, and – I mean, I saw a different figure, I think, to towards the end of February, by which time our – you know, our alarm was really, you know, truly raised. But I’m trying to give you my best explanation for why people were in the mindset that they were in.

Lead Inquiry: There was a Cabinet on 31 January.


If we go to page 10, please, we can see the nature of the debate. It was of course chaired by you that afternoon, and:

“THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE [Mr Hancock] said that two cases … had been confirmed in the [United Kingdom].”

They had been of course confirmed on 30 and 31 January.

“It was a very serious problem in China …”

A large number of cases and fatalities. And then the debate moves on to the typical infection rate of two and a half to three people –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and the mortality rate at 2%?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So if the reproduction value is two and a half to three, that is to say one person will infect two and a half to three people in an unimmunised population and the mortality rate 2% of people who were infected or perhaps confirmed cases, it’s not clear, means a very, very large number of people will die; correct?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: The debate in Cabinet, pages 10 and 11, deals with repatriation:

“a) the Department for International Development [examines] developing countries where the risk of spread of the disease was high. Spread of the disease globally would be a big problem for these countries, and could also mean further evacuation of British nationals …”

So the debate focuses almost exclusively around the position abroad, the repatriation issue and, despite the reference to the mortality rate, the reproduction figure and the knowledge which was already in the possession of government that there was confirmed cases outside China with sustained human-to-human transmission, nobody stopped to say, “This means, inevitably, a huge number of deaths, a wall of death, and this country, if it escapes China, being overrun by the virus”?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I think the word “inevitably” there is the one that I would pick up on, because I think if you look at what the Secretary of State for Health told the Cabinet, he said, “If the Chinese grip it, then it won’t be a problem, but if China don’t grip it then that could be very serious”.

But your point is still basically a good one, which is that, you know, we had to think about what happened if China didn’t grip it, and I think we just have to, you know, put our hands up here and say, look, I think because of the absence of collective memory, because we were operating under a different set of assumptions, I don’t think that we were able to comprehend the implications of what we were actually looking at. And I think that – or, sorry, let me put it a different way. I think if we – as I said right at the beginning, if we had collectively stopped to think about the mathematical implications of some of the forecasts that were being made, and we’d believed them, we might have operated differently.

The problem was that I don’t think we attached enough credence to those forecasts, and because of the experience that we’d had with other zoonotic diseases, I think collectively in Whitehall there was not a sufficient, loud enough claxon of alarm. I don’t blame people, I just think it was because of the experience that they’d had all their lives.

Lead Inquiry: The material, Mr Johnson, shows how at various stages you warned against overreaction, you made the point that SARS and MERS had not turned out to be as serious for the United Kingdom as some had feared at the time, BSE had not resulted in the levels of deaths which some had forecast. So may we take it that you put yourself in that category of people who had –

Mr Boris Johnson: Oh, I was –

Lead Inquiry: – insufficient credence?

Mr Boris Johnson: I was – I was agnostic. I … yeah, I thought – I took what Matt had to say very seriously, I thought he wasn’t, you know, badgering me without a reason, but on the other hand I’d had the experience that you describe, so I was waiting to – waiting for the advice and waiting for that to change.

Lead Inquiry: In your statement, you say:

“Looking back, it is clear [and this is in the context of January] that we vastly underestimated the risks in those early weeks. If we had properly understood how fast Covid was spreading and the fact that it was spreading asymptomatically, there are many things we would have done differently.”

So first, it was nevertheless clear that Covid was spreading, because you knew that it had spread outside China to Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and there is material or a growing understanding that it can be transmitted asymptomatically, but what things –

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, there is now.

Lead Inquiry: No, there was dawning realisation, Mr Johnson, the material shows, for example, NERVTAG on 14 February, scientific reports to SAGE in the first week of February, Diamond Princess and so on and so forth throughout the middle of February, so it was clear it was asymptomatic.

Mr Boris Johnson: Could –

Lead Inquiry: But what are the many things that you would have done differently, had you, as you say, properly understood the true nature of the crisis?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, could I just come back on the asymptomatic point quickly?

Lead Inquiry: Please.

Mr Boris Johnson: Because I do think it’s important. The information that I was getting, and I think, you know, this went up right till the middle of March, was that you were unlikely to have Covid unless you had the symptoms. And I think – I think I had that from the Health Secretary.

Lead Inquiry: You did, at a Cabinet meeting –

Mr Boris Johnson: Right, okay.

Lead Inquiry: – you were told that by the Health Secretary.

Mr Boris Johnson: So there seemed to be a great deal of doubt – you know, I’m sure you’re right in what you say about the evidence that was being – that was knocking around about asymptomatic transmission and infection. I think if we’d known, and fully understood, to answer your question, the speed of transmission and the infection fatality rate, case fatality rate, I think clearly we would have acted immediately to accelerate test and trace, to – we’d have put huge quantities of time and effort and money into diagnostics, into PPE, into all the things that we were going to need. I’m not saying that that work didn’t begin, it did begin, but I think the panic level would have been – would have been much higher. I’m trying to explain as honestly as I can why I think that panic level wasn’t sufficiently high.

Lead Inquiry: Let me make plain, the reason I put the question to you in the way that I did in relation to asymptomatic spread is that your own statement says it was not known:

“If we had properly understood … the fact that it was spreading asymptomatically, [then] there are many things we would have done differently.”

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, so, sorry, I should say –

Lead Inquiry: You didn’t know – you’ve explained that you didn’t know it was spreading asymptomatically, but my suggestion to you is: important parts of the government knew by mid-February that it was spreading asymptomatically, and that there was, therefore, a governmental failure to act on that information in the way that you have very eloquently described it?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I can’t comment on that, because I don’t know what people thought about the issue of asymptomatic transmission in February. I do remember what we were being told, I do remember the view around the Cabinet table.

I mean, the one thing that has troubled me a lot, I’m sure we’ll come on to it, is the March discharge policy where clearly the question of asymptomatic transmission –

Lead Inquiry: Can we come –

Mr Boris Johnson: – would have been relevant.

Lead Inquiry: I’m so sorry to interrupt. Can we come back to that?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of course.

Lead Inquiry: There’s an important contextual position which has to be set out for the purposes of that debate.

There is evidence before the Inquiry that the Chief Medical Officer told Mr Hancock at a meeting on 28 January that there was credible evidence of asymptomatic transmission within Germany. Was that a fact of which you were aware?

Mr Boris Johnson: Of that –

Lead Inquiry: Did you know that?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, of the CMO’s –

Lead Inquiry: That Mr Hancock had been told there was credible evidence of asymptomatic transmission within Germany at a meeting on 28 January.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, if I was told that, I’ve completely forgotten it. My memory of asymptomatic – the asymptomatic transmission issue is as I’ve told you.

Lady Hallett: Not you, Mr Hancock was told.

It’s all right, Mr Johnson –

Mr Boris Johnson: No, sorry – I’m sorry, I understand, my Lady. What I meant was if I knew that Chris had told Matt that, at some stage –

Lady Hallett: I follow.

Mr Boris Johnson: – it’s completely gone from my mind. What I remember about asymptomatic transmission is that we – the – insofar as I paid attention to it, it was that it was not thought to be taking place.

Mr Keith: Borders.

Your statement states that the advice that you got consistently from the CMO, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and SAGE was that closing the borders wouldn’t work, if you closed them dramatically or stringently, then of course there are very real – well, intensely difficult practical consequences, and if you just have screening or light touch restrictions, then they may achieve very little.

Will you just explain how you received that advice, in fact consistently, from a COBR or the time of a COBR on 5 February through a Cabinet meeting on 14 February and through to the end of February? It was consistent advice that you received.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, thank you, and that is one of the most fascinating things about the scientific advice during this pandemic and the view about behaviours. Many, many things changed, as I’ve said – you know, masks, other NPIs, were thought – they moved up and down in the value that people put on them.

But when it came to borders, there was an overwhelming scientific consensus, as far as I understood it, that trying to interrupt the virus with tougher border controls bought you really very little. You might delay by a matter of days, or perhaps weeks, but you would not stop the virus from entering the UK. And I think that was – I think a lot of people in the country found that very hard to understand, because I think intuitively we think, if you – just stop this thing coming in. And it was very important for me to try to understand that point and to explain it to the public, because I think the public really believe instinctively that you can fix this with tough border controls, or often do, and it’s a difficult point sometimes to get over.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Cummings says in his statement that you asked rhetorically:

“… aren’t … people going to think we are mad for not closing the borders?”

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I may well have said something like that, but I think that the – I think it was a question that people raised –

Lead Inquiry: People were asking?

He also says, Mr Johnson, that because of your general attitude that Covid was like swine flu, you weren’t particularly inclined to challenge the scientific advice at all to the effect that border restrictions would make no difference. Is that true?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, the two statements seem to me to be inconsistent.

Lead Inquiry: Well, just is it true or not?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I certainly thought it was – I thought it was a point worth picking up with the scientists. I wanted to understand the reason why border controls didn’t work.

But, in retrospect, you can see that they were right. Countries that did try to use borders as a way of containing Covid really didn’t succeed in that.

Lead Inquiry: So did you pick the point up? You say, “I think it was a point worth picking up with the scientists”. Did you push back in any way with the scientists and say, “Can that be right? Is there not anything that can be done to at least restrict the spread of the virus now that it’s left China?”

Mr Boris Johnson: I certainly remember many conversations about borders. Quite how adversarial I was, I couldn’t now tell you.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

There was a stocktake meeting on 4 February – INQ000146558 – when, in the context, Mr Johnson, of a general debate about the DHSC, hence the description “stocktake meeting”, the Chief Medical Officer gave an update.

“Following an update from the CMO, the Prime Minister stressed the need to continue to explain our stance to maintain public confidence in the plan. On further travel restrictions, your Secretary of State was engaging [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] and European colleagues and would revert with a proposal …”

According to the permanent secretary, Sir Chris Wormald, Mr Johnson, and to notes kept by Imran Shafi, your private secretary, of this meeting, you were in listening mode, there was a discussion about possible fatality numbers, but you expressed scepticism about those figures, the fatality numbers, and you noted, they say, that high fatality figures had been given for BSE, bovine spongiform encephalitis, and swine flu.

Is that right, that you expressed scepticism about the possible number of deaths?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t remember that, but I do remember – I certainly remember the BSE scare, and I remember the immense destruction that that did to the agricultural sector in this country and, you know, the way that all turned out.

I think, you know, it would be fair to say that I was – I wanted to probe them on their forecasts, and to try to understand, you know, the basis on which they were making them.

Lead Inquiry: You’ve described how the Whitehall system, the process of government in Whitehall, failed to have a lightbulb moment and appreciate the seriousness of the position. Would you accept that being informed about the possible fatality numbers but expressing scepticism and drawing a false analogy, as it turned out, with BSE, was a lost opportunity on your part to drive the system further forward with rather more urgency than appears to have been the case?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, look, I certainly – I certainly would accept that my mindset, like the mindset of, I think, the overwhelming majority of the ministers and officials in Whitehall in that period, Jan to mid-Feb, was not as alarmed as we – as we should have been. That’s … that’s definitely right.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000236371, page 37.

Mr Cummings sends a text to what was called a Number 10 action group. It’s dated 6 February, so it’s early in February. We know that you were party to this WhatsApp group because your name appears at the bottom, Mr Johnson.

“Dominic Cummings: [we] Need a briefing on corona [tomorrow]. Chief scientist told me today it’s [probably] out of control now and will sweep [the] world. Will be major comms exercise.”

Sir Ed Lister then refers to the COBR meeting, which was:

“… clear that China is probably [losing] it and once it reaches us [not if it reaches us] it will not peak for three months. Dom is right the Comms is key …”

And then you say:

“Yes please. Need to talk coronavirus comms at 9.”

Now, putting aside the issue of whether or not what you said about the mindset of government applied to Mr Cummings or the Chief Scientist who refer there to “[probably] out of control now and will sweep world”, why was there a focus by way of the singular response to that information on comms? Why didn’t any of you say, “Well, if this virus is probably out of control now and will sweep the world”, bearing in mind the fatality numbers, the IFR, the hospitalisation rate, why did none of you say, “We need to take steps now to deal with infection control, prevent the spread, alert the population, we have a major problem”, not focusing on communications?

Mr Boris Johnson: Because I think that the … it’s your point about the infection fatality rate, the consequences. I think that when you read that an Asiatic pandemic is about to sweep the world, you’re – you think you’ve heard it before, and that was the problem.

So I say we need to talk about it, but I think it would be fair to say that the scientific community within Whitehall at that stage was not telling us, I was not being informed, that this was something that was going to require urgent and immediate action. And –

Lead Inquiry: But you knew – forgive me.

Mr Boris Johnson: – I think that although you’re right that we could see the mathematical implications of the reasonable worst-case scenario, I think the problem was that we didn’t think – and this was our mistake – we didn’t think that the RWCS was very likely to happen. That was the problem.

Lead Inquiry: We’ll come to that.

Mr Boris Johnson: So when I get told – anyway, forgive me.

Lead Inquiry: But BSE did not have a 2% fatality rate, swine flu did not have a 2% fatality rate, so when you say there was an institutional failure to realise the seriousness of the position because of Asiatic, prior Asiatic, epidemics, or because of BSE or swine flu, the difference, and it was known to government, was that Covid had a 2% fatality rate and BSE and swine flu had not.

Mr Boris Johnson: And that is entirely correct, but I think the tragedy is that we were operating, as I said in my statement, on a fallacious inductive logic about previous reasonable worst-case scenarios and this one, and we just – this was – this was the one where I’m afraid the worst predictions turned out to be or almost the worst predictions turned out to be correct.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000056137 is a Cabinet meeting on 6 February which you of course chaired. On page 6 – so that the public can understand, Mr Johnson, this document, which is minutes of the whole Cabinet meeting, has large parts redacted as being sensitive and irrelevant because, of course, Cabinet dealt with many other issues other than just coronavirus.

But on this page, page 6, Cabinet turns to update on coronavirus. It’s “very serious”:

“… official estimate was … around 28,000 cases, but that was likely to be a significant underestimate.”

The virus didn’t appear to have been contained in Wuhan. The mortality rate was only around 2%.

There is a reference to a ministerial exercise on this page.

Mr Boris Johnson: So what date is this Cabinet –

Lead Inquiry: This is 6 February. There we are:

“There would be a tabletop exercise the following week.”

What was your understanding of that tabletop exercise? Did you attend it?

Mr Boris Johnson: I didn’t –

Lead Inquiry: Did you have any role –

Mr Boris Johnson: – I didn’t attend it and I’m sure my officials did.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Then just three lines above it:

“The central point to make was that the Government had a plan to deal with this illness, and this was guided by science.”

Did you ask in the course of that Cabinet meeting what, bluntly, is the plan?

Mr Boris Johnson: I understood the plan to be, from what Matt had said and from the discussions I had had, that we would try to isolate, test and trace people as they arrived, that was what I thought the plan was, and my impression was that we had a good testing system.

But I don’t – to answer your question directly, I’m – I can’t be confident I said in that meeting “what is the plan”, but that is my understanding of what it was.

Lead Inquiry: A week later on 14 February, Mr Johnson, there is another Cabinet meeting, and another update.


Page 1, we see the attendees, page 6, the update on coronavirus:

“The Prime Minister said that the Government and the country needed to be ready for the coronavirus situation to get worse. The public messaging so far had struck the right balance between preparing the public for what might happen and not causing unnecessary alarm.”

Your focus there, Mr Johnson, appears to be on messaging, on communications, on ensuring that the public are aware but they’re not caused undue alarm by an overreaction. Where was the debate, at your urging, about infection control measures, the practicalities, the nuts and bolts of stopping the virus from spreading irrevocably throughout the United Kingdom, now it had left China?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I’m not certain that the – so, first of all, on messaging, messaging was incredibly important. Messaging, in the end, was the most important tool we had to deal with the virus. I don’t wish to – I don’t think we should deprecate the importance of messaging.

As for measures to tackle infection, spread of infection within the country, we’ve talked about borders and we’ve talked about test and trace. Borders didn’t really offer a panacea. Test and trace, we were sadly not as well prepared as we should have been.

Lead Inquiry: So the borders were never going to work. The test and trace couldn’t work because it was only for a handful of cases. You’ve identified no other practical means at the disposal of government to prevent the spread of the virus. Why doesn’t somebody say, “We have a major problem here. Not only is it coming but the two measures, which you’ve just identified, aren’t going to work and will never work”?

Mr Boris Johnson: Because – for the reason I’ve given you, which is that we, although we can see the RWCS, and we’re seeing these numbers, we are not yet believing, perhaps irrationally, but we’re not yet believing that the RWCS or anything like it is going to happen, and that’s – that’s fundamentally the problem.

Lead Inquiry: Page 7, there is another reference to the government’s plans. There were plans in place. At the top of the page:

“Concluding, THE GOVERNMENT’S CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER said that if the virus became widespread in the [United Kingdom] …”

Widespread in the United Kingdom.

“… there were plans in place …”

When the Chief Medical Officer told you that, what did you make of it, bearing in mind that if the virus was widespread, it would necessarily have extended beyond the limited test and trace system about which you were beginning to understand something, and the borders have obviously failed? What were the plans, did you think?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that he’s referring there to testing and tracing, but plainly that was – that was inadequate. At a certain stage later in the month, as I think I say in my statement, Chris did brief me about NPIs, about lockdowns and other measures.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

On page 8, you sum up the meeting, Mr Johnson. You’re grateful to the Secretary of State for Health. It was challenging to convince people –

“… grateful to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and his department for their work and in particular for getting the balance of communications right. There was potential for the virus to have a large impact on the UK’s economy …”

Was it because of the mindset to which you have referred the Inquiry that you didn’t say “There is potential for this virus, indeed a probability now, that it will kill” rather than focusing on the economy?

Mr Boris Johnson: Because – and I didn’t say that because I – because you used the word “probability” in the sense of, I suppose, meaning an overwhelming likelihood. That was not what we thought. It was not what I thought, certainly.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Boris Johnson: But I did think that we were now in a situation, almost certainly, where we were going to have to take a lot of measures to contain it that would be costly and difficult. So that’s the point I – and if you think about it, that’s – that was why BSE, notwithstanding your excellent point that it wasn’t nearly as fatal as people had originally said, it cost an awful lot of money.

Lead Inquiry: COBR, on 18 February, was not a meeting that you were present at, but if we could just have up INQ000056227. In broad outline, Mr Johnson, and we can see this, I think, from page 7, the director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat says to Mr Hancock, who chaired the meeting, paragraph 17:

“… there was work to be done to create a clear plan of activity …”

It’s not appropriate for me to ask you what was meant by that phrase.

Mr Boris Johnson: Sorry, this is Matt speaking, is it?

Lead Inquiry: No, that’s the – it’s paragraph 17 on page 7:

“The CHAIR invited the Director of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat …”

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: This is her responding.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah. This is Katharine Hammond.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

Were you aware, as Mr Hancock has acknowledged and has told the Inquiry, by this date, 18 February, that there was no rulebook, the system had to “build many parts of [the] response from scratch”, and that there was no central government plan other than the old 2011 pan flu strategy. Were you told that?

Mr Boris Johnson: I was not told that, but that became apparent as the days went on.

And clearly one of the things I hope from this Inquiry is that we will have a much better system of planning for these types of events.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000146563 is an email chain between your private secretary, Imran Shafi, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Chris Whitty, and Katharine Hammond, concerning the coronavirus in Italy. To get your chronological bearings, on 21 February, so three days before, Mr Johnson, 11 municipalities in Italy –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – you’ll recall, had locked down the population of those municipalities.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: And also, I should say, the Diamond Princess affair, that is to say the explosive outbreak of the virus on that cruise ship, had become apparent, as had the figures of the number of people who showed no symptoms on that boat.

But, to turn to the document itself, your private secretary says:

“It’d be good to see where we get to post SAGE tomorrow. At some point soon, I’d like to start exposing the [Prime Minister] to the potential decisions he might have to take in short order on this – at the moment it’s been fairly abstract with him I think.”

Now, plainly, Mr Johnson, you can’t go digging around in other people’s emails or in government systems to find out for yourself what’s happening; you have to be reliant upon what you’re told. What was your general state of information, the general level of knowledge at this date, now in the dog days of February?

Mr Boris Johnson: Okay, so – I mean, my memory now is that I think the scenes from Italy really rattled me, and it was, I thought – and I remember seeing a note somewhere saying that, you know, the fatality rate in Italy was 8% because they had an elderly population. I thought, well, my God, we’ve got an elderly population, this is appalling, and this can’t be – and my instinct was this cannot possibly be right, you know, this number.

And, I mean, you know, just so you know, I look at all this stuff in which we seem so oblivious with horror now. I mean, we should have twigged, we should collectively have twigged much sooner, I should have twigged.

I think what Imran is trying to do here is to get the scientists to take me through the NPIs, the idea of the NPIs, and what that would involve.

Lead Inquiry: This is the 24th. There had been a COBR on the Tuesday before, 18 February. There wasn’t a COBR, in fact, again until 26 February. This was just on the cusp of half-term. There was no Cabinet between Friday 14 February and Tuesday 25 February but SAGE and NERVTAG continued to convene.

Despite being, as you’ve said it yourself, seriously rattled by the news of Italy, did the tempo of work on coronavirus nevertheless dip during the half-term break that followed?

Mr Boris Johnson: I notice that, you know, you’ve been over that period in your previous interrogations in this Inquiry, and I hope the Inquiry, you know, is satisfied that actually there wasn’t a long holiday that I took in that period –

Lead Inquiry: You personally. Well, let me ask you –

Mr Boris Johnson: – because I think that there was some misapprehension about it.

Lead Inquiry: You carried on working –

Mr Boris Johnson: I did and, for instance, on the 18th – sorry.

Lead Inquiry: If you will allow me to set out the picture, Mr Johnson, it may make things a bit easier.

You returned to Downing Street three times, I think, during that half-term break from Chevening where you were – you weren’t at Chequers. You received a number of notes in your red box. You didn’t, though, receive a daily update, I think, dealing with coronavirus expressly or exclusively until your return from the half term break on Monday 24 February, and the question to you is: in the box returns, the box notes that you did receive, what proportion focused on coronavirus?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I can – I can’t tell you that, because I can’t remember. But I remember there were certainly conversations going on about Covid with my officials, and in that very period I rang President Xi of China to offer the UK’s condolences for what was happening in China, to discuss the origins of Covid, and to compare notes on what was happening.

I also, I think a couple of days later, rang President Trump in America to discuss exactly the same thing.

So it was – despite what has previously been said to the Inquiry by some of the evidence, there was a lot going on, and it really starts to mount in tempo round about the time that we get Katharine Hammond’s note of the –

Lead Inquiry: On the 28th?

Mr Boris Johnson: On the 28th, yes.

Lead Inquiry: So the question to you, Mr Johnson, is this – and nobody is suggesting you put your feet up at Chevening during that week.

Mr Boris Johnson: Apart from you, that is.

Lead Inquiry: Well, what I’m suggesting to you is, by your very own reference to the fact that the tempo increased after the half term break, between 14 February, when Cabinet discussed the plans that would need to be drawn up, to 25 February after half term –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – relatively little overall was done in terms of responding to this immediate crisis, was there?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that – sorry, forgive me. Mr Keith, forgive me, I was referring to a conversation I happened to catch on the – between you and a previous witness in which I thought the impression was being given by somebody that I was relaxing during that period, I was –

Lady Hallett: I think it was Mr Cummings.

Mr Boris Johnson: It may have been.

Mr Keith: And not given by me, Mr Johnson –

Mr Boris Johnson: I take it back unreservedly, Mr Keith, and I apologise.

I was working throughout the period, and the tempo did increase, particularly during, you know – when we got the – when I saw the message from Katharine Hammond on, I think it was 2 March but I’m told it was earlier –

Lead Inquiry: But there was a meeting on Friday 28 February that you attended –

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: – with the CCS.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right, and what troubled me was the sheer number of potential fatalities under the RWCS, and this was just a horrifying figure, and I couldn’t believe it.

I’ve got to be honest with you, I thought this – because what the paper also said was it may be like a bad flu pandemic or it may be milder than that. But I thought, well, we have plenty of bad flu pandemics in the UK, and we also have – and if it’s milder than that, then it won’t be an exceptional thing at all, so why am I also being told that the RWCS is 520,000?

Lead Inquiry: Well, that was of course a meeting on 28 February, but I want you, please, to answer the question about the tempo of work on coronavirus between 14 February and 28 February when that paper was produced to you.

Would you accept that there was a lost opportunity on the part of government to react with sufficient speed and attention to the nature of this crisis in that two-week period, for whatever reason – because of the mindset, because parts of government were away, it matters not. Overall, the government took its eye off the ball in that two-week period by failing to act sufficiently speedily?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that there were clearly things that we could have done if we’d – and should have done if we’d known and understood quite how fast it was spreading, but we didn’t.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Boris Johnson: And that was the – that was the reality.

Lead Inquiry: There was a COBR on Wednesday 26 February, INQ000056216, page 6. This is a crucial moment, although it’s not, again, a COBR that you were present at, Mr Johnson, but it is a COBR of the utmost seriousness, because on page 6:

“The CHAIR [Mr Hancock] said … the reasonable worst case planning assumptions looked close to becoming the reasonable planning assumptions as cases in Italy demonstrated the need for heightened alertness …”

Turning that into plain English, what Mr Hancock was saying was that the government, which had hitherto been working on the basis of planning for a reasonable worst-case scenario, planning for the worst, but hoping for a better outcome, had realised that the reality of the scenario identified by Sir Chris Whitty in January, the second scenario, was looking close to becoming the reality; that is to say. The reasonable worst-case scenario was indeed coming to pass, not there quite yet but it was looking close.

Would you agree that that understanding was a crucial moment?

Mr Boris Johnson: Sorry, what date is this?

Lead Inquiry: This is 26 February. It’s a COBR you weren’t present at, and it’s in advance of the receipt by you of the civil contingencies paper.

Mr Boris Johnson: It does look as though that meeting informed Katharine Hammond’s – well, helped to inform Katharine Hammond’s paper and perhaps was the reason why I was – I got the – had the meeting I did. But I couldn’t swear to that.

Lead Inquiry: I haven’t asked you that, in fact, but it may well be, and it’s a matter for my Lady, the material shows that the CCS were tasked to provide the paper for you before this meeting.

Mr Boris Johnson: I’m sorry, okay.

Lead Inquiry: But the question from this paragraph for you is: as the Prime Minister, were you told that the COBR, which you had not chaired, had been told that the reasonable worst-case scenario –

Mr Boris Johnson: No, I wasn’t.

Lead Inquiry: – was looking close to becoming the reality?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t remember that. I don’t remember that.

Lead Inquiry: The CCS paper, 28 February, is INQ000182331. The first paragraph, Ms Hammond says:

“Covid-19 looks increasingly likely to become a global pandemic, although this is not yet certain.”

It’s the first sentence of this report.

Did you ask Ms Hammond: how can it not yet be certain when the virus has escaped China, there is sustained human-to-human transmission outside China, there are cases now in the United Kingdom, and we have no means of preventing its spread? Why is she saying it’s not yet certain?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think – I don’t know the answer why she’s saying that, and I think formally speaking it had not yet been declared a global pandemic, and I think it was up to Tedros Ghebreyesus, at the WHO, to do so and maybe she is referring to that. But I read it as meaning it’s not yet certain to be a major problem.

Lead Inquiry: Paragraph 2:

“Based on existing assumptions for a severe [pan] flu outbreak, in a reasonable worst case scenario about half of the UK’s population would become ill … and up to 520,000 people could die as a direct result of Covid-19.”

Just pausing there, note the reference to “could die” as opposed to “would die” once the virus has self-sustaining community transmission.

“The scientific advice is to use these numbers for planning – they are not a prediction …”

Did anybody at that meeting, the meeting which you had – and we’ll come to the actual meeting itself in a moment – but did anybody at the meeting at which this paper was discussed ask Ms Hammond: why is the sole paper from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the crisis management body in the heart of government, suggesting that these figures are not a prediction, when, as you’ve just described, the information to COBR on 26 February was saying the reasonable worst-case planning assumption looks close to becoming reality?

Mr Boris Johnson: I can’t answer that question.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Boris Johnson: But it’s a very good question.

Lead Inquiry: Page 2, paragraph 9, the report says:

“We need to strike a balance between taking precautionary steps and overreacting … as cases spread … the risk of overreacting is reducing. We are now planning for a potential global pandemic that would inevitably spread to the UK …”

So it would, in this paragraph, inevitably spread.

Did you assess, reading this report, Mr Johnson, that the reference to overreaction was long past and that, in fact, in the striking of that balance there was now a real emergency and a need to take precautionary steps straightaway?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that the – I found the paper very alarming, arresting, I went – I think I remember going to talk to my officials about it, saying, you know, which is it, a severe to mild flu pandemic or an RWCS of 520,000? Because I just, I couldn’t understand what I was being asked to anticipate.

Lead Inquiry: So I’ve referred to the meeting. Your private secretary, Imran Shafi, refers at INQ000146636, to the meeting. It’s difficult to read his writing, but there is a reference to the PM asking “what’s the strategy” – there we are, thank you.

“[Prime Minister] -> what’s the strategy.

“- when are we going to take big decisions, of what evidence.”

On what evidence, of what evidence? And then you say:

“- biggest damage done by overreaction.”

So it looks, from the face of this note, that your sense that there was a real crisis, that you were extremely rattled, is prevalent in the first sentence, but in the second sentence, perhaps in reflection of the CCS report, you say the biggest damage is done by overreaction.

Mr Boris Johnson: I think – I think I’m leaving both possibilities open, because that’s how it’s still – it still struck me. I think that in disasters such as this, the actions that government take inevitably also have costs, and I’m sure we’re going to come on to this, but that’s the balance you have to strike.

Lead Inquiry: As the Prime Minister, instead of directing government to respond to the threat of a near existential crisis, you instead warned of the dangers of overreaction?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, I said – no, no, no, that’s – well, forgive me. I say:

“- when are we going to take [some] decisions, [and on] what evidence.”

Because I’m looking at a problem that’s been presented to me. I need to know what the plan is going to be. I’ve told you that I don’t like the look of the way it’s going in Italy at all, and we need to do something. And that is the day, I think, the 28th, when I remember, though I’m not sure if Chris would confirm this, I remember having a long conversation with him at some stage around that date when he takes me through NPIs, what were later referred to as lockdowns, and he tells me about the pros and cons, about – he gives a sketch of the behavioural fatigue argument, and he takes me through the issues.

So I’m – so I think what I’m saying is: well, if this is the problem, then when am I going to be given the menu of options about what we’re going to do about this?

Lead Inquiry: The read-out from the meeting, INQ000136750, shows that you called for a major ramp-up of OGD, other government department activity on domestic preparedness.

Mr Boris Johnson: And that was the least we could do.

Lead Inquiry: Yes, I think if you go over to the second page.

No, there we are, it’s the top of the page, thank you, I missed it:

“We need a major ramp-up of OGD activity on domestic preparedness – and we should use the COBR meeting on Monday to land this point with Secretaries of State;

“The [Prime Minister] agreed with the approach to publish an action plan …”

That’s the plan that was published on 3 March, was it not, “contain, delay”?

“… (he will review the plan itself over the weekend …”

You read the draft plan over that weekend, did you not, 29 and 30 February –

Mr Boris Johnson: The first plan, yeah.

Lead Inquiry: 28 February and 1 March. And you “agreed with the need for early emergency legislation”, and then there is a debate about repatriation.

Do you, with hindsight, and I emphasise hindsight, Mr Johnson, accept that the level of seriousness may not have been sufficiently communicated in this direction from you? Do you say you did enough?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that I did what I could. I think the problem is that actually if you exclude borders, and test and trace is not as good as it cracked up to be, and if you’re told that we’ve got ample supplies of PPE – I was finding it hard to conceptualise exactly what we should be doing except for the NPIs, and that was the only thing that I’d been given. And we had no plan for that. And I don’t think the concept of lockdown or even the word “lockdown” had yet emerged.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed not. There was a 25 February SAGE meeting where non-pharmaceutical interventions were debated, but they didn’t include lockdown. There was a debate about extreme social distancing at the beginning of March, “lockdown” doesn’t appear until later.

Mr Boris Johnson: It doesn’t.

Lead Inquiry: But your answer, Mr Johnson, is:

“I think the problem is that actually if you exclude borders, and test and trace is not as good as it cracked up to be, and if you’re told that we’ve got ample supplies of PPE – I was finding it hard to conceptualise exactly what we should be doing …”

That debate, that realisation on your part that there is no effective border control, that PPE may be deficient, that there is no effective test and trace or scaled-up test and trace, isolate, contact system, is absent from all this material. That debate simply doesn’t take place. There is no general realisation the virus is coming, it’s at 2% fatality rate or 1% fatality rate and we haven’t got the measures in place to be able to deal with it. That debate doesn’t take place –

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that’s – and I think that’s right, and I think it’s basically for the same reason that I’ve given, which is that although people intellectually can see that the RWCS could happen, as Katharine Hammond puts it, they still don’t think that it’s very likely to happen. And that’s the reality.

Lead Inquiry: Now, in March, on the 2nd, you chaired your first COBR.


If we look at page 5, paragraph 2, we can see that you’re told that:

“… contact tracing for the source of infection for the last two cases in the [United Kingdom] had not been successful …”

So just pausing there, even the limited test and trace system in the United Kingdom had failed to pick up what was still then only a relatively few number of cases, it had not picked up the last two, and that in both France and Germany there was now sustained community transmission. So in terms of infection spread, it may be thought, “Well, game over”, in terms of infection spread.

“… the aim for the DELAY phase, if CONTAIN failed, was to delay the peak of infections, to reduce the peak, and to minimise loss of life.”

Then in paragraph 3:

“… the CMO said that interventions to delay the spread of the virus must not be implemented too early in order to ensure maximum effectiveness.”

There is material from SPI-B, one of the SAGE subcommittees, on 4 and 9 March, also COBR on 4 March and 9 March, which demonstrate that the Chief Medical Officer in particular said timing of implementation is crucial, compliance or despondence is heavily dependent on timing. I’m going to use the well known phrase “behavioural fatigue”; although it has no scientific genesis you understand the phrase and its meaning.

To what extent were your decisions, and we’re now getting into the phase at which social distancing measures were starting to be contemplated, to what extent was your decision-making process influenced by this notion that interventions should not be imposed too early?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, it was the prevailing view for a long time, and it wasn’t just the CMO who articulated the concept of behavioural fatigue, if you look at the many other meetings, or look at the press conference of 12 March, you can see that the CSA gives a very full description of what happens if you go in hard and early with a population that has no immunity, and then you release the measures, it bounces back – or, as I think you’ve described it, the spring –

Lead Inquiry: Will you forgive me if I pause you there, Mr Johnson. I was asking you questions about this idea that the population mustn’t have measures imposed too early because they will become tired of it –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – there is an issue about maximum effectiveness. I wasn’t in fact asking you about the recoiled or uncoiled spring.

Mr Boris Johnson: Forgive me, you’re quite right, but the two things are connected, because what the CSA went on to say on 12 March was that people get fed up and you lose the – so if you have to keep – and we’ll come to this, I’m sure, in the matter of the October/November lockdowns – you have to keep doing it, and so my anxiety was, in the absence of therapeutics, and without a vaccination programme, what would happen if we simply went into a hard lockdown early and then had no alternative but to come out. And so to answer your main question, that was a – it was an anxiety, a problem that was very prevalent during those early days.

Lead Inquiry: This issue appears to have been raised with you at a relatively early stage, on 2 March: we must not implement “too early in order to ensure maximum effectiveness”.

To what extent do you think it likely that you would have proceeded to implement measures earlier than you did had you not been told, “You mustn’t go too early to ensure maximum effectiveness”? What is the impact of this? What should the Inquiry make of this debate? Is it important –

Mr Boris Johnson: It’s very – it’s fundamental. And it’s – it goes – because I’m afraid it’s what happened. We have to be realistic about 2020, and the whole year, that whole tragic, tragic year. We did lock down, but then it bounced back, after we’d unlocked, and –

Lead Inquiry: I’m so sorry, Mr Johnson, may I bring you back, please, to the first week in March.

Mr Boris Johnson: Sorry.

Lead Inquiry: Had you not been told, “Don’t go too early, because there is a limit to which the population will be able to bear the implementation of these measures” –

Mr Boris Johnson: I –

Lead Inquiry: – would have gone earlier than you did and by what time were you effectively forced to delay?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t think I can – I can’t say that I would have gone earlier, because I think I would have been guided by what advice I was getting about when to put NPIs in. Don’t forget that this is a once-in-a-century event. We’re doing things, we’re enacting policy that has never been enacted in our lifetimes in this country, and to do it at the drop of a hat is very – it’s very logistically difficult, but it was, you know, not something you rushed into.

Lead Inquiry: But having been told by the CMO: be careful, don’t go too early because the population might not wear it, did you consider saying to him, “Well, in this general debate about non-pharmaceutical interventions and social distancing, the public health demands, the likelihood of death and hospitalisation, demand that we take these measures regardless of whether the population are prepared to put up with it over time”? Did you push back against this notion of “don’t go too early”?

Mr Boris Johnson: I thought that the – the short answer is no. I don’t remember – so I don’t remember saying to myself – absolutely candidly, I don’t remember saying to myself, “This is so bad, they must be wrong, I must overrule the scientists or I must ignore the scientists, I must go” –

Lead Inquiry: No question of overruling the scientists, you were following the scientists.

Mr Boris Johnson: Correct, forgive me.

“I must ignore the” – and that’s a very important distinction – “I must ignore the scientific advice and the threats to public health and of worse outcomes if we go too early and I must simply maximise. I’ve got to deal with the problem in front of the windscreen, I’ve got to deal with it now.”

I didn’t – I didn’t do that, and I – perhaps with hindsight I should have done, but, as I said to you right at the outset of this hearing, I just don’t know the answer.

Lead Inquiry: That’s clear.

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith, is that a convenient moment?

Mr Keith: By all means.

Lady Hallett: It’s just that we usually break every hour and a quarter, and I think that’s probably enough for this morning.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: 1.40, please.

(12.41 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.40 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Mr Johnson, may we start with a WhatsApp message that Mr Cummings sent to Lee Cain, INQ000048313. This is dated 3 March, and Dominic Cummings says:

“He doesn’t think it’s a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking economy into a slump.”

There are a number of parts to that message, and I’d just like you, please, to say whether or not you accept that there is any truth in this message, bearing in mind it’s dated also 3 March, or whether you think there is a degree of accuracy in it?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, we’ve just had the previous day, Mr Keith, we’ve just had the COBR that I’ve chaired, I think, were planning to deal with something that I actually think, as I’ve told you, is starting to be an issue of concern to me. I was, as I say, rattled by the images from Italy, I couldn’t figure out why I was getting these conflicting messages about whether something could happen, the scale of the RWCS and what it was going to be. I think the part of the message that is still correct at that point is that, if I – if at that point you had asked me, “What is going to be the lasting damage from this?” I still would have probably said it’s going to be what we do to fight it, rather than the actual impact of the disease. But I was – I was increasingly concerned about it.

Lead Inquiry: You have in fact already given evidence to the Inquiry in relation to why as – at, you suggested, an earlier stage there were comparisons properly to be drawn with swine flu, and you’ve described the importance to you of not talking the economy down. The first line “he doesn’t think anything can be done”, may I just ask you this: this date, 3 March, comes of course after your meeting with the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, it comes after the COBR at which there is some early debate about measures and what can be done, and if you did say on 3 March to Mr Cummings, “I don’t think anything can be done”, that casts a very significant light upon what you were being told around that time?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t think – I can’t say exactly what I said to my adviser, nor would I necessarily place too much reliance on his reporting of what I said, but I think my impression was at that time that – you know, because of what we’ve said about borders, because of what we’ve said about the other measures open to us, that – you know, it goes back to the questions I was asking, you know, I couldn’t see yet the plan, I couldn’t see what … so the NPIs were, to me – this is probably what Imran is getting at in his email – pretty, you know, far-fetched still in my imagination, I was … I was still gestating that.

Lead Inquiry: At a press conference on 3 March you said that we were as a country extremely well prepared. Of course, as it turns out, that was not so. But I want to ask you: the weekend before you had received the draft action plan, the “contain, delay” document which you’d been shown in draft form, and in that document there is that assertion, “We are well prepared and we have plans in place”, et cetera.

Do you think you told the world that we were well prepared on the 3rd because you had seen it in that action plan, the draft of which you had been reading over the weekend?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, this is the second – this is the weekend of the –

Lead Inquiry: 28 February/1 March.

Mr Boris Johnson: Was there a leap year? Was there a 29th?

Lead Inquiry: I really don’t know, Mr Johnson, I can’t assist you with that.

Mr Boris Johnson: Anyway, it’s certainly true that I was – the general – the general reassurances I was getting were that, you know, we were well prepared. So the scales had not yet fallen about, for instance, test and trace.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed, and you shook hands with patients at the Royal Free Hospital –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – on 1 March. You know that, of course, you were later criticised for that. May we take it that you hadn’t seen, or at least you hadn’t been advised of the contents of the SPI-B paper of around that time – in fact the paper came later, 3 March, but advice was given generally before that – advising against greetings such as shaking hands? Did you know?

Mr Boris Johnson: I didn’t, but I do think that it was – I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have done that in retrospect. And I should have – I should have been more precautionary. But I wanted – I wanted to be encouraging to people and – so I think it’s on that day that I go to Colindale, to PHE. And although I’d been told – sorry, this is in my statement – but although I’d been told that, you know, we have a fantastic belt and braces system, I was a little bit concerned about – I had a feeling that perhaps they weren’t really as across the situation as I’d been led to believe.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Hancock gave evidence to the effect that he was told on 18 February by Public Health England that the test system was unsustainable, that it wouldn’t be able to operate beyond the handful of first few hundred cases, did you know that when you visited Colindale?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, and in fact I think I gave a clip to the media in which I gave some figure for the number of daily tests that we – or I believed then that we were doing, and I do remember Chris being – the CMO being, you know, quite – sounding confident, at least to me, about the number of tests we were capable of doing at around that time. I now can’t remember the exact date.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

COBR on 4 March, you chaired that. You were presented with a paper “Potential impact of behavioural and social interventions”, INQ000056158. It’s illustrative of what you were being told at the time, Mr Johnson, because it makes plain that:

“… behavioural and social interventions … [can] be applied as part of [an] HMG response … including the expected impacts … The note does not cover economic, operational or policy considerations.

“2. SAGE has not provided a recommendation of which interventions, or package of interventions, that Government may choose to apply.”

So the first question is: did you understand that SAGE was never going to be telling you, “Mr Johnson, you must do this”, it could only ever provide advice about the nature of the interventions and the consequences and the risks and so on, it could never tell you what to do or what you had to consider doing?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right. I mean, SAGE is – SAGE is like a – you know, it’s a doctor/patient relationship. The doctor can’t order you to do things, the doctor is not responsible for what you do, the doctor says: if you do this, then that, if you do – if you fail to do it, then the other. And that’s basically how it works, and should work.

Lead Inquiry: Was the Chief Medical Officer around that time, 4 March, telling you, however, you must now start considering these behavioural and social interventions? And of course the first one, you’ll recall, is imposed on 12 March.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, so –

Lead Inquiry: We don’t know when you first started to –

Mr Boris Johnson: So, as I said before the break, actually we’d – the CMO and I had had a heart to heart about non-pharmaceutical interventions, about a lot of aspects of it – particularly, from a public health point of view, the costs. And he really stressed that.

So we had thought about it, and I could see that that was the direction in which things were starting to go. And it’s only a few days later when I actually tell the public, I think for the first time, I think on the – I think it’s the 9th or thereabouts, “We’re going to have to start restricting social contact”.

Lead Inquiry: And that answers, perhaps, my next question, which is: why was there a delay between the first debate between you and the Chief Medical Officer about the possible imposition of these behavioural and social interventions and 12 March when the first really significant intervention was imposed?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think there we have to go back to the earlier conversation that we had about –

Lead Inquiry: Mindset.

Mr Boris Johnson: – timeliness – no, not timeset(sic) but mindli- –

Lead Inquiry: Going early.

Mr Boris Johnson: About going early, about the issues that were raised by going hard, going early, which later became the mantra, but which in March the – the problem was that if you – so I was told repeatedly, by both CSA and CMO, you know, you risked bounceback and behavioural fatigue and get more behavioural fatigue as a consequence of bounce-back.

Lead Inquiry: There is a graph on page 2 of this document which shows what the waves, that’s to say the transmission of the virus, would be likely to be depending on whether or not there was mitigation, that’s to say intervention, or no mitigation or moderate intervention, and you can see the different colours of the lines, Mr Johnson, depending –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – on whether or not they were very stringent or less stringent. So it was plain to you, wasn’t it, that if no steps were taken, there would be a massive first wave, that’s the black wave, but if it was reduced to some extent there would be moderate transmission, the blue wave, and then a more severe intervention would be the high transmission reduction.

But to make absolutely plain, if we look at page 5, there was at this stage on 4 March no mention of a lockdown as such –

Mr Boris Johnson: No.

Lead Inquiry: – there were a range of potential interventions from stopping large events, closure of schools, home isolation, whole household isolation –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – social distancing, impact, we can see there on the right-hand –

Mr Boris Johnson: All these things.

Lead Inquiry: But no lockdown?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, and that’s quite right, so this is the sort of the double hump graph that really became very influential in all our thinking, and indeed is what, I’m afraid, tragically, is more or less what happened.

But the measures that we could take to depress the first curve, first wave, were all very much couched in the – with caveats about timeliness and not going – going at the right moment.

Lead Inquiry: And it’s right to say, isn’t it, that the wording that the Chief Medical Officer used with you and spoke in COBR on 2 March, “must not be implemented too early”, was with reference to interventions plural?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes. And if I could offer a suggestion as to, you know, what was really going on, I think that – you know, this is clear – we simply didn’t realise how fast the disease was spreading. And if you remember, the predictions were that the peak was going to come in mid-May or June, I think, and it was really well in advance of that.

Lead Inquiry: If we go back to page 2, and the graph, you can see that it’s put there in terms of spring, summer and autumn?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: But there was no suggestion on that graph that the peak of the black unmitigated wave would be the end of March, beginning of April?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: Speeding up now, because we’re coming now to the final decisions in March, WhatsApp messages from Mr Hancock, or rather his WhatsApp group, the WhatsApp group he shared with Mr Cummings and Mr Slack, suggests that around this time on 5 March they debate telling you to “STOP saying ‘business as usual’”. Do you recall that debate with them?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t, and nor do I even remember saying that, but – using the phrase – but I think what I might have said is, you know, “Until such time as we tell you to do XYZ, it’s business as usual”, but I don’t – I don’t remember that debate.

Lead Inquiry: You have described the genesis of the herd immunity debate. May I just please show you a WhatsApp entry or WhatsApp communication from 14 March, so running forward a bit to the weekend at which there was a distinct change in strategy.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: If we could just look at 14 March, 7.17 am.

So I think it’s page 3 of INQ000048399, we can see – I’m not sure that’s the correct document. 48399. Ah, yes, it is.

Mr Boris Johnson: Ah, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Thank you very much.

So just to put it in its context, Mr Johnson, over the weekend at which there was a change in strategy, there were repeated conversations between you all, of course, but you raise at this point the point of the impact of a herd immunity debate, and you make the point further down the page, I think it’s at 6.49 –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – 39, yes:

“Here’s the [problem with] herd immunity argument.”

So just very shortly, you’ve described to the Inquiry how the herd immunity debate arose at the beginning of March, 5 March. It appears that you were still debating, or your advisers and you were still debating the full meaning of and the nature and the extent of the herd immunity debate as late as 14 March. It appears to have trundled on as a bone of contention for weeks.

Mr Boris Johnson: Can I – I think I can understand what’s – I mean, I’m looking at this for the first time, but let me try to explain what I think this is about.

What happened on 12 March was that there was a press conference in which we were trying to deal with the … I had to level with the public and say I’m afraid a large number of people are going to lose their loved ones before their time. It was a pretty grim press conference. And in that discussion we were asked about how – the way through, and I think Patrick said the idea was to flatten the curve, suppress the virus, with some measure of herd immunity by September being, I think, a good outcome, was what he said.

I think he also said something to the effect of, you know, it might not be – you needed to suppress the curve, but not – it might not be necessary to stop everybody or even desirable to stop everybody getting the – getting the virus, because again you might want some, I think, some measure of herd immunity.

Anyway, that was the moment when people all pricked up their ears and say, “Are they trying to allow this thing to just pass through the population unchecked with a view to establishing herd immunity?” Which is not what we wanted, not what Patrick meant, and we had to do quite a lot of work to clear it up.

Because it – what we – our objective was to protect the NHS and save life, and to save life by protecting the NHS. That was our objective. Our strategy was to suppress the curve and to keep the R below 1, as much as we could. We were going to use everything we could to do that. Herd immunity was going to be, we hoped, a byproduct of that campaign which might be very long and very difficult.

Lead Inquiry: At the same time, in COBR on 9 March, in SAGE on 12 March, in COBR on 12 March, and in an interview that the Chief Medical Officer gave to the press on the 13th, there were repeated references to the need to delay the peak of the virus as opposed to suppressing it entirely, because of the risk of an uncoiled spring, of it bouncing back –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, correct.

Lead Inquiry: – a second wave.

If we could just have that document back, INQ000048399, and 7.39.42 am, please, 14 March, probably page 3 of that document, 48399.

It appears that this debate about herd immunity and the debate about uncoiled spring had caused you considerable concern, because at 7.39.42 you say:

“That’s why I was concerned when some on team were suggesting last week that we actively need a proportion of [population] to be infected.”

Then you say:

“Civil service need to grasp.”

What did you mean by that?

Mr Boris Johnson: So can’t say exactly what civil servants I was thinking of in that context. I think probably what I mean is: look, we’ve set a hare running by mistake – and I think Patrick, you know, really did a huge job to try to clear it up – we all need to set the public’s mind at rest and explain what we’re doing. It’s protect the NHS and save lives, and that’s the priority.

Lead Inquiry: Further down the page at 10.49.15, in fact it’s 15 March, page 6 of this document, you can be seen to be saying:

“[Given] what happened in Italy we simply have NO TIME.”

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: And we can see that.

Mr Boris Johnson: This is the 15th.

Lead Inquiry: 10.49.15, there we are. Two-thirds of the way down the page, 15 March, “we … have NO TIME”. We’ve jumped forward but that, of course, is the Sunday 15 March, in the middle of all the debates that you were having with your advisers?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Just to finish off some other points which you’ve addressed, in relation to behavioural fatigue, and you being told that the timing of implementation of interventions was vital, the evidence before the Inquiry shows that the SAGE meeting on 13 March –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – that’s to say on the Friday – you weren’t of course an attendee at SAGE –

Mr Boris Johnson: No.

Lead Inquiry: – was told, and the minutes of the SAGE meeting make this plain:

“Difficulty maintaining behaviours … should not be taken as a reason to delay implementation …”

Mr Boris Johnson: Ah.

Lead Inquiry: Ben Warner, your adviser, was present at that meeting and he was reporting back to Number 10. Were you told that, in contrast to what you had been told about the need for timing and behavioural fatigue and so on, SAGE was in fact saying by the 13th, “Don’t take that as a reason to delay implementation”?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, in effect, yes, in the sense that that was the – I mean, I wasn’t told that particular detail about behavioural fatigue not being a reason to delay implementation, but what I was told was that we had a – new data, we were at least, you know, five to seven days further on, possibly more, in the curve than we thought we were, and that the margin of manoeuvre that SAGE had seemed to think we had and was offering to us on the 12th – if you remember they say then, you know, there are four things you can do: self-isolation for seven days if you’ve got any kind of symptoms (though even that we say we can postpone until the Monday the 16th), then there’s household isolation of 14 – for 14 days, then there’s a couple more measures –

Lead Inquiry: Advice.

Mr Boris Johnson: – advice for the –

Lead Inquiry: Elderly?

Mr Boris Johnson: – for the vulnerable, and then for those over 70. And those last three they say can actually be put off for one to three weeks on the – on the 12th. Then on the 13th that’s the key moment, really, because that’s when I get called back on the Friday evening. I come back on the – first thing in the morning, and you know – you know the rest.

Lead Inquiry: On 12 March there was a COBR meeting which you chaired, INQ000056209. There is, at page 6, a graph.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: And –

Mr Boris Johnson: No, I remember looking at this.

Lead Inquiry: And this page is entitled “What would be the effect be on the NHS of interventions?”

Mr Boris Johnson: This is the – what date is this again?

Lead Inquiry: This is 12 March. So this is the Thursday.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: On the right-hand side you can see “Graph A: no measures”, so that’s to say no interventions, and at the bottom right-hand corner, “Graph B: measures 1 & 2 implemented”?

Mr Boris Johnson: I know.

Lead Inquiry: 1 and 2 were seven-day isolation and number 2 was household isolation.

If we could scroll back out again, please, in both graphs the red line, “Freeable beds”, and the black line “Total NHS beds”, make plain that whatever you do, unmitigated or mitigated through measures 1 and 2, the NHS will be –

Mr Boris Johnson: Totally.

Lead Inquiry: – massively overwhelmed?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: What did you make of that?

Mr Boris Johnson: I was bewildered, to be honest. I remember – I remember looking at that graph and thinking in either case we are facing an absolutely intolerable situation, and I … but although I clocked it, I … I thought, well, there must be a reason why we’re not being told to go urgently. Maybe that reason is all the things that we’ve discussed. So I have to admit, and I think I say in my statement, that I think at this point there is a certain amount of incoherence in our thinking, because that graph makes it clear that things are going wrong, and that is cleared up the following day.

Lead Inquiry: But you didn’t yourself ask, firstly, what can be done to bring the blue –

Mr Boris Johnson: No.

Lead Inquiry: – part of the chart below the black line, why are we talking in terms of these modest measures which may or may not even be imposed this week when we’ve got to bring the blue part below the lines?

Mr Boris Johnson: I didn’t and that’s –

Lead Inquiry: And, secondly, why didn’t you ask: why are you presenting me with this and at the same time telling me we mustn’t go too early with interventions?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, because I was, I’m afraid, listening to the advice I was being given about timeliness and I was – and looking with puzzlement at the graphs. And what I should have done, and I – though thankfully it was only a matter of a day or two before the thing was resolved, what I should have done was, as soon as I saw that graph, said, “Hang on, this is not coherent with what you’re telling me about timeliness”. Because I do remember looking at it and thinking there was something amiss.

Lead Inquiry: Around this time, on 5 March – going back to the beginning of the week, on 5 March there was a Covid-19 meeting at which advice was given to the effect that a prohibition on mass gatherings was not necessary. Did you throughout that week, as you had in fact during earlier weeks, receive advice that, for epidemiological purposes at any rate, there was no need to shut mass gatherings, sporting events?

Mr Boris Johnson: That was the – but to be fair to the people who were giving the advice, it sounded reasonable at the time, given what we knew, because what they said was: look, if you do this, what you will do is push everybody into the pubs and the warm enclosed spaces where transmission will be even faster. So that was the point that was made.

Lead Inquiry: You were, by your own words, of course, only following the science rather than being directed by the science?

Mr Boris Johnson: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: It must have been apparent to you that this was presentationally disastrous, to keep mass gatherings open whilst you were debating the closure of schools as one of the possible interventions?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s true, but I felt that – it was – certainly the public didn’t get it, just as – but that was true of many of the measures that we put in place throughout the pandemic. There was often a more – there was often a gap between the public conviction about something and the scientific certainty about the effectiveness of that measure. Borders would be an example, masks might be another example.

Lead Inquiry: You’ve highlighted the importance of communications, Mr Johnson. In terms of leadership and in terms of beginning to direct the country that there were terribly difficult times ahead and impossible choices to be made, the closure of mass gatherings would have sent a vital message, would it not?

Mr Boris Johnson: And I had already told people on the 9th, so several days before, that they were going to have to restrict social contact, and on the 12th I had given them a – I think, a pretty powerful and in many ways frightening message about what was going to happen.

Lead Inquiry: But Cheltenham took place –

Mr Boris Johnson: And the effect –

Lead Inquiry: I’m so sorry.

Mr Boris Johnson: Forgive me. The effect of that, I think, did show up in people’s behaviour.

Lead Inquiry: So that we are clear, the Cheltenham Festival continued the week of the 10th, there was an Atlético Madrid match –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and mass gatherings, sporting events, were not in fact shut –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – until the following week?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, and as a – with hindsight, as a symbol of the government’s earnestness, rather than just as a – you know, being guided by the science, we should perhaps have done that, and I agree with you.

Lead Inquiry: And no doubt that was in accordance with your own libertarian instincts?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, at every stage I was weighing the massive costs of what we were doing to people’s psyches, to people’s life chances, to the whole – you know, when you talk about an economy, you’re talking about people in all walks of life who suddenly can’t get to do the thing that they need to do to earn a living, and it’s a – it’s a – what we were obliged to do was very, very destructive for a lot of people who were least able to bear the costs, and least able to manage it.

Lead Inquiry: Over the weekend of 13/14 March, there was what has been described by a variety of witnesses as that change in strategy, and it matters not for these purposes, Mr Johnson, whether it was an acceleration of the existing plan, a change in strategy or a redirection; there was, on any view, a significant change.

It’s plain from the evidence, but obviously the ultimate decision is for my Lady, that there were a number of individuals who were pushing for change. Mr Cummings, with his colleagues Ben and Marc Warner, and also Helen MacNamara and Imran Shafi all met on the Friday night, and with Mr Cummings’ whiteboard they worked out that immediate much more stringent measures were required to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

During the course of that week, the days before that weekend of 14/15 March, it’s obvious from data being provided to Number 10, we’ve seen part of it in that memo to SAGE, showed the likely impact on the NHS.

Why wasn’t the lead government department, the DHSC, responsible for public health, pushing you harder during that week to introduce the more stringent changes? Why do you think that department, it appears from the evidence, was still trying to go for the squash the sombrero, part mitigation, herd immunity route as opposed to recognising “we must have suppression, we’ve got to stop this now before it’s too late”?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think probably – so my interpretation – my memory of it is slightly – is slightly different from that account, or maybe it might be the same. But what I felt happened was that we were – we were in a state now where we knew we had a massive problem, we knew we were probably going to have to act in ways that we didn’t really – hadn’t bargained for and didn’t – and were still being developed. We still thought we had a bit of time, but not very much, probably, and that was what the scientific guidance seemed to say. And if you look at those – that long paper by SAGE on the 12th, you can see that, and I’ve quoted a bit of it.

My impression, and I may be wrong about this, but my impression was that on the 13th the radical change that you refer to is really one about the timeliness thing, and what I think SAGE saw, and this is what was conveyed to me by CMO and CSA, was that the virus was now spreading much more rapidly in the UK than they had bargained for, and therefore we had to accelerate. And so I think that it was a confluence of opinion, but the people I talked to on the Saturday morning were the people you’d expect, it was Chris, Patrick, Imran, Stu, my other advisers.

So I wouldn’t want to – I wouldn’t want to allow the Inquiry to – just to run away with the idea that it all would have sailed on had it not been for the intervention of Number 10. I think that SAGE themselves, on the 13th, had seen very seriously and very clearly that something needed to be done. That was, at any rate, my impression.

Lead Inquiry: Until Saturday 14 March, when Mr Cummings presented his whiteboard in the middle of numerous other meetings and talked about plan B, until that point, no one in the DHSC had said, “We’re off the mark, we’ve gone wrong, we’ve got to accelerate and impose more stringent measures”, did they?

Mr Boris Johnson: My impression is that the critical moment was indeed, as you say, that SAGE meeting when I think that a number of scientists, epidemiologists, looked at the data and said, “We are – I’m afraid we’re off the pace here”, and that – I think that was what happened.

Lead Inquiry: In his evidence to this Inquiry Mr Hancock said that on that Friday 13 March he called you to tell you there that there needed to be an immediate lockdown. Do you recall that call or not?

Mr Boris Johnson: I’m afraid I don’t, but it’s been a long time.

Lead Inquiry: In his witness statement Mr Cummings says, at page 49, during the course of the Saturday:

“The [Prime Minister] … asked reasonable questions.”


“… ‘why aren’t Hancock, Whitty, Vallance telling me this?’”

Do you recall that discussion?

Mr Boris Johnson: I remember them being there, but I might be –

Lead Inquiry: There was a meeting – well, there were four meetings. There was a meeting with Sedwill, Vallance, Whitty, then a meeting with Cummings, Reynolds, Shafi, Lister, Whitty and a host of others, then a follow-up meeting yourself with Mr Cummings and the Warners, then a second follow-up meeting, and then another meeting.

You had a lot of meetings that day.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: At one of them, Mr Cummings says you turned to him and said “Why aren’t Hancock, Whitty, Vallance telling me this?” Do you recall that debate?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think – I don’t recall it, but what’s certainly possible is that I was alluding to – I was looking with, you know, dismay at what was happening, dismay about what we were going to have to do, and reflecting that, you know, this was not the message I – I mean, I’m conjecturing, I mean, this is not the message that I’d been having from them in the past few days.

Lead Inquiry: You don’t recall?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t – I don’t recall saying that.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Let’s have a quick look at one of the papers, the briefing on the Covid response that was put before you on the Saturday.

INQ000183889. This is the document which sets out the current plan and the proposed alternative plan, briefing on Covid-19 –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – response. There’s a variant on the graph that you saw before, but –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I saw this.

Lead Inquiry: – you can see at the bottom of the page, “The current plan” – if you scroll back out again, we can see “The current plan”, “An alternative plan”, at the bottom of the page.

In summary, is that correct, Mr Johnson –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – throughout that weekend of 14 and 15 March there were multiple meetings, a variety of different people pushed for different speeds of intervention? We can see from the WhatsApps that some people said “Go now”, other people said “We’ve got to move fast”, but there was in any event a very real understanding that more had to be done, more stringent measures had to be imposed, and COBR would have to consider all that on the Monday when it next convened?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes. So my impression was that what Ben Warner and others were doing, and I don’t know about the differences in views but what they were doing was trying to take the SAGE meeting of the previous day and really give to me the logical consequences of that.

Lead Inquiry: But only you could decide the strategies, and you decided, did you not, by the Sunday night, when you called Sir Patrick Vallance and Sir Chris Whitty to another meeting, you decided that the alternative plan would have to be followed, and you gave, as we will see in a moment, a number of directions as to what needed to be done?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I mean, it became – it was absolutely clear by the Saturday that we had to act. We were out of time.

Lead Inquiry: The Inquiry needs to ask you this: to what extent did you appreciate, by the Sunday night, that a lockdown decision, a stay-at-home mandatory order, was inevitable? It obviously wasn’t imposed until Monday 23 March, and during the course of the week there were a great deal many complex, extremely complex operational issues to circumnavigate, a shielding system having to be built effectively from scratch, getting hold of data from the NHS. We can see there were real issues about the preparedness of the Cabinet Office around that time, from Mr Cummings’ WhatsApps that refer to CABOFF being “terrifyingly shit, no plans, totally behind the pace”.

Was it a question (a) of you deciding that there had to be a lockdown but that time would be needed to put it into place, or (b) you would start the arrangements which could accommodate a lockdown but that that decision wouldn’t be then taken for another week?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that, looking at the graphs, I was reconciled, or getting increasingly reconciled, to the fact that we were going to have to do a huge amount more to suppress the virus, and I … you know, just to go back to an earlier point, this was not something we’d done from – the country had been through, it was hard to get one’s head round, the legal complications were enormous, how to do it. As you rightly say, Mr Keith, you know, all that needed to be worked through. We had started the Bill a long time ago. I mean, 5 February we start the Coronavirus Bill.

But I think my state of mind then is I’m now more or less in virus-fighting mode. I’m thinking we – you know, this is – you know, there’s absolutely nothing – we’ve got to throw – we’ve got to sort this out. So there is then a series of things that we do leading up to the 23rd.

Lead Inquiry: But you weren’t entirely in virus-fighting mood. If we look at INQ000273872, page 55, we can see part of the seemingly perennial debate in your own mind as to what should be done. Mr Cummings asks Lee Cain, if you could just scroll into that screenshot:

“Get in here he’s melting down.

“Rishi saying bond markets may not fund our debt … He’s back to Jaws mode …

“I’ve literally said the same thing ten … times and he still won’t absorb it. I’m exhausted just talking to him …

“I’ve had to sit here for 2 hours just to stop him saying stupid [things].”

Mr Johnson, you would be inhuman, perhaps, if you hadn’t, in that terrible week, oscillated and backed and veered in your own mind about what had to be done, but is it fair to say that you made your doubts and your oscillation clear to those around you?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think it was my job to address all the consequences of what we were doing, and to test the policy, which I was, as you can see, determined that we deliver and get on and do, and it was, even though it was a completely novel policy, absolutely dramatic thing to do.

I – what he’s referring to here is a conversation with the Chancellor where I’m talking about the downsides and I’m talking about the costs, and how negligent – it would have been totally negligent not to have had such a conversation, not to have gone through with the HM Treasury the economic ramifications of what I was proposing to do. And I need to do that.

It didn’t in any way – just I think the key thing is it didn’t in any way stop us or divert us from the crescendo of actions that we took.

Lead Inquiry: Forgive me, the suggestion is not being made here that you, having reached a view on public health grounds, took yourself off to speak to the Treasury and see what arguments needed to be made properly on behalf of the economic consequences that would ensue from a lockdown. It is that your own decision-making, your own judgement, backed and veered and that, by implication, this is a poor example of leadership function. You couldn’t make up your own mind as to what should be done.

Mr Boris Johnson: No, on the contrary, I’ve made up my mind. We are getting on and doing it, we are not being diverted, I’m – I’ve got the Chancellor of the Exchequer with me saying that 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 have to go through the arguments, and that is what I was doing.

Lead Inquiry: At INQ000146636, page 92, your own private secretary, Imran Shafi, recorded in his notebook that on Thursday 19 March, the same day in fact as those communications, you said:

“- ‘we’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour’.

“- large [people] who will die – why are we destroying everything for people who will die anyway soon.

“- Bed blockers.”

Is that not indicative of an absence of consistent position by you and a clear decision that on the basis of the scientific advice that you had received, these stringent interventions were necessary?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, it’s – no, it’s an indication of the cruelty of the choice that we faced, and the appalling balancing act that I had to do throughout the pandemic, and in order to – if indeed I said something like that, what I was saying, which is the truth, which is that in order to drive down the virus, to stamp out the virus, you have to do things that are going to be very damaging in all sorts of other ways.

Perhaps it’s not – it wasn’t designed to be publicly broadcast, but I was trying to find a way crisply to summarise what I saw as part of the problem. And I needed people to – and I think, by the way, that what I hope the Inquiry will be able to do, I needed people to be able to do a faster reckoning of the benefits, the impacts of the NPIs and the costs at the same time.

As for the reference to so-called bed blockers, that is – I assume this is 19 March, is it?

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, we’ve only a couple of days previously decided to do the March discharge strategy, and the issue there is that we’re facing a crisis in that we only have about 100,000 beds in the NHS, in the acute sector, and plainly, sadly, many of those were delayed discharge patients, and we needed to sort that out.

Lead Inquiry: Two other issues in relation to the Thursday and the Friday. On 19 March, that Thursday, you had a meeting with a newspaper proprietor. Mr Cummings has suggested that that meeting, which appeared in your diary as a personal social matter, was not perhaps the best use of your time in the middle of this crisis.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, all I can – I can’t remember exactly what happened at that meeting, it was a very brief meeting. Mr – the newspaper proprietor in question doubtless wanted to know about what was happening to London and why – and where he owns – and indeed the whole country, and wanted to be informed and I wanted him to be supportive.

Lead Inquiry: Was the meeting to do with Covid? Was it Covid-related, Mr Johnson?

Mr Boris Johnson: I can’t remember but I’m absolutely certain it must have been.

Lead Inquiry: On that Thursday and Friday there was then debate also, wasn’t there, about whether or not, in light of the figures showing that the NHS in London would be overwhelmed sooner, there might have to be a lockdown for London first –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – before the rest of the country, but that debate resolved itself, didn’t it, when it became apparent that there was little point in locking London down if the rest of the country was going to be locked down just a matter of days thereafter?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

The final weekend of 21/22 March, Sir Chris Whitty produced a paper dated 22 March, in fact, called “Coronavirus: summary of strategic and tactical approach to the epidemic”, and that was presented to you at the second of a – Covid-19 strategy meeting on the 22nd.

The lockdown was of course ordered on the 23rd, following a meeting of COBR and a strategy ministerial group meeting.

The material put before you, Mr Johnson, over that weekend shows that, whilst there were some positive trends, the level of compliance by the population in relation to the measures which had –

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: – previously been imposed on 16 and 20 March failed to reach the necessary 75% required to have some degree of certainty that the R number could be brought below 1. Is that a fair summary?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah, that’s completely right and I remember I think Patrick making some point – making points about there being too much social mixing in parks and so on.

Lead Inquiry: Now, obviously, schools had been shut from the 20th, you had directed the closure of non-essential retail and leisure outlets and everything else on Friday, the 20th.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: A few days before, on the 16th, you had had the first set of interventions. Why on that Monday did you not wait to see whether or not the measures from the previous week, which had of course been imposed in good faith, and specifically designed to bring the R below 1 –

Mr Boris Johnson: Right.

Lead Inquiry: – which was your overriding strategy, might work? Why didn’t you wait to see whether or not those measures would, over the course of that week, start to bring R down below 1, as you had fervently hoped and properly believed they would when you’d imposed them the week before?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that by this stage the – for the simple reason the scientific advice was starting to become much more precautionary, and I think that the – I sensed, from what I was being told about the effectiveness of the previous messages, that we – we had to do more and, looking at the shape of the curves that I had seen, I thought that we – you know, we’d run out of – we’d run out of wiggle room, and I thought we had to do what we could.

Lead Inquiry: There was no hard data, of course, as to when the NHS would be overwhelmed. You were not in the position of being able ever to have been given hard data as to when that could be, because you were in the context of an epidemiological exponential curve?

Mr Boris Johnson: And nor was it.

Lead Inquiry: You could not know exactly how many additional deaths would be spared if you took the measures on 23 March as opposed to waiting to see whether the measures from the 20th would work.

You just weren’t in that territory, and that being so, why didn’t you wait to see whether or not the previous measures should be allowed to work?

You say:

“… looking at the shape of the curves … I thought … we’d run out of wiggle room.”

“I sensed” more needed to be done.

That was a very, and this is the suggestion to you, a very uncertain foundation upon which to order the ultimate sanction, the mandatory stay-at-home order.

Mr Boris Johnson: I accept that. I think that – and, you know, I’m troubled by the decisions that I took for all sorts of reasons, and none of them, as we said at the beginning, were easy. I’ve been – you know, the government clearly from some quarters gets criticised for going ahead with a lockdown and, you know, as we were discussing earlier, the very word “lockdown” doesn’t really appear in government vocabulary until the 14th, but we did it completely on the 23rd.

I think it was really a measure of my anxiety about the curve. It just – it seemed to me that the … I no longer had the luxury of waiting. I just – it was over. We had to – the …

What I was hearing from the scientists, the – my sense that probably they were right to be doubtful about the efficacy of the measures, I had a hunch that that might be correct, though I couldn’t know. I thought we could no – I thought, you know, we were out of time and we had to do everything that we could, and so that’s why we went to – you know, we closed schools on the Friday, we closed non-essential retail, and then we do the stay at home on the Monday.

Lead Inquiry: But on the Friday when you closed the schools and you shut the retail, you weren’t at that stage – you hadn’t at that stage already determined that there would be a lockdown on the Monday. That decision was only made in light of the information over the weekend about levels of compliance.

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that …

Lead Inquiry: That’s correct, isn’t it?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that’s – that’s probably true, but I think that my general sense of where we were likely to be going had changed, and I thought that we were going to have to do whatever it took.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000056213, page 4, is the relevant part of a meeting of COBR, the COBR decision, the COBR meeting that took place on the Monday after you had given the directions on the Sunday night. COBR considered whether or not that additional social distancing measure, that is to say a mandatory stay-at-home order, should be imposed. This meeting took place at 5 o’clock on that Monday.

If you look at the current situation update in the first three paragraphs, you will see a reference to the figures for compliance being positive in part:

“… for social distancing measures, the figures were positive and showed that there had been an encouraging drop in footfall, but in some areas these were not … yet at a level that was acceptable …”

But park attendance, paragraph 3, had gone up by 200%.

You will recall in the press pictures of –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – thousands of people attending parks across the land.

“… and queues in shops had increased. There were regional differences and there were lower compliance rates in some areas outside London.”

If we just scroll, and we needn’t pause for long, but if you just scroll over the document, we can see there is much more detail provided about levels of compliance, the tube, and then on page 6, at the top:

“… the CHAIR said that the measures were not to stop all work, there was work in government and other offices that must be maintained. That there was a balance …”

The Attorney General gave advice on legal matters. Some points were made about enforcement and deterrence.

At 12:

“… the measures needed to be taken as social distancing was not being adhered to at present.”

It appears, Mr Johnson, from that paragraph that you understood there to be a binary issue: either the 20 March measures were being adhered to. Or they were not, and, if they were not, there was no option but to go the ultimate step and impose the lockdown.

There was no debate in that meeting, was there, as to whether or not, to use the words of the Chief Medical Officer, “the measures from Friday might yet do the job”?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that’s fair, but I want to try to explain to you why I still thought it was right to throw everything at it, and the basic reason is that I had seen from the events of the last – which we’ve discussed extensively – of the last two/three weeks that we’d systematically underestimated speed, underestimated prevalence, and we didn’t have any other – we didn’t have the systems to control the virus that, you know, perhaps I’d believed earlier in the month that we did.

I didn’t know what other tools I had, as Prime Minister, to protect large numbers of people from this virus, and I felt fundamentally that I was out of time, and what I’d believed in the previous week was that we still had some wiggle room, because that seemed to be what I was – I was hearing. I might have been wrong, but I took the view on the Sunday and Monday that we were just out of time, and the thing was too big and the curve was too aggressive.

Lead Inquiry: The Inquiry has put this proposition to Sir Chris Whitty, and also to Mr Hancock: did you act because in effect you were told by the Chief Medical Officer and the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser that the nature of the exponential growth was such that, regardless of the actual number of NHS places, regardless of any data that might indicate that the NHS would be overwhelmed or when it would occur, and regardless of the number of additional deaths that would be caused if you didn’t act, the nature of the exponential growth was such that huge numbers of additional deaths and collapse were inevitable at some point, and you simply couldn’t gamble that they would not eventually occur? Is that the nub of it?

Mr Boris Johnson: I … I took very seriously, and I listened very hard to Chris and Patrick, and it felt to me as though they were basically saying that the UK was now in a position where we had to do everything we could to restrain, contact, and that that was our best shot at protecting the NHS and saving life, and so that was what I did.

Lady Hallett: Can I interrupt for a second. Forgive me.

Mr Keith: I’m so sorry, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: No, it’s just you mentioned earlier, Mr Johnson, about how some would say you shouldn’t lock down at all. When you did decide that we had to lock down, did you consider the arguments to say you should never go that far and impose that kind of level of draconian restriction on the liberty of the population? Did you consider the argument against lockdown or did you –

Mr Boris Johnson: I did, and, I mean, I didn’t – I’m afraid to say at that stage I gave it pretty short shrift, because I thought that my job was to protect human life, and that is the number one duty of government. And I thought that if the NHS was overwhelmed, then the risk of truly tragic scenes in the UK of the kind we’d seen in Lombardy was very real. And thank heavens that did not happen, thanks to the amazing work of the NHS and, you know, as I said right at the beginning, hundreds of thousands of people. But I felt I had to do what I could to give them the best possible chance, and I had no other – I had no other tool, literally nothing else.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Keith: And is that why, Mr Johnson, examination of the Covid-19 strategy ministerial group meeting on the Saturday, the Covid-19 strategy ministerial group meeting on the Monday morning at 9.15, and of the COBR meeting that we’ve looked at at 5 pm on the Monday, shows very little, if any, debate about the countervailing non-public health argument? It’s just not there.

Mr Boris Johnson: That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t happening and you’ve seen a reference to it in my conversation with the Chancellor. There was a huge amount of thought going into it, but the higher objective had to be saving human life.

Lead Inquiry: And it is perhaps not surprising, but within three days of that momentous decision – INQ000048399, page 17 – having seen an article in the press – and it’s a matter entirely of course for my Lady – you ask the extremely salient questions – although I now can’t see them. If we could scroll back out? Yes, please, if we could scroll back out, please:

“I must say I agree [with] every word of this weeks spec [Spectator, perhaps] cover story by professor John lee

“1 we have no idea how many Covid deaths are truly additional

“2 when Covid fatalities are recorded we have no idea whether it is merely present or actually the cause of death

“3 we have no idea what proportion may have had the disease asymptomatically already

“4 So we have taken these extraordinary steps without being truly sure how deadly it is.”

Is it those expressions of doubt, Mr Johnson, why you said earlier that the basis upon which you proceeded was one of precautionary approach in public health terms –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – because in the absence of any hard data you believed you had no option?

Mr Boris Johnson: I couldn’t take the gamble with public health, but I was conscious that – you know, we’ve had the argument about – the discussion about behavioural fatigue. That takes many forms. One is that the media, understandably, certainly a lot of the media need – they need a proper explanation of why this is necessary and how it’s working, and they need – and I really think that we need – you know, there is still work to be done in this area. And so here I’m saying, you know, we need to – if we’re being attacked for, you know, not standing up our actions, then we need to substantiate it. We need to say, “No, no, no, this is what public health requires.”

Lead Inquiry: So on this essential issue, the Inquiry wants to ask three direct questions.

Firstly, from what you’ve said, Mr Johnson, and this may be entirely obvious, was it your position that the lockdown measures, the stay-at-home mandatory order of 23 March, was absolutely necessary?

Mr Boris Johnson: I believe that it was, and I believe that it helped to suppress the R. I think that it was cumulative. I think that the R started to go down as a result of a series of things that we did and also, frankly, as a result of popular anxiety about Covid anyway.

But I’ve got to tell you, in all honesty, I can’t – I find it difficult to quantify the impact that those measures had, and the more we can do to explain why NPIs – why NPI measures of any kind work, why they’re necessary, to the satisfaction of everybody, the easier it will be for government next time and the more public buy-in there will be.

Lead Inquiry: Is that a –

Mr Boris Johnson: Public buy-in was, I think, already very high, but I think it would be a great thing.

Lead Inquiry: Is that a reference to objective analysis of life quality and the outcomes, in terms of life and death and quality of life, of particular measures?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that what we all need – so I think that the – you asked: did the lockdown work? Do I believe that it worked? I do. But, as a layperson, I would like that – and I saw the Royal Society study on this, that I think Chris had a hand in generating. It was very interesting, but I think we need to understand with a lot more granular clarity exactly what these NPIs deliver.

Lead Inquiry: I think that was Sir Patrick Vallance’s predecessor, but it matters not.

Mr Boris Johnson: Oh, forgive me.

Lead Inquiry: Is that the report into what the nature of interventions are –

Mr Boris Johnson: No, it was –

Lead Inquiry: – lockdowns?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, sorry, it came out after the pandemic. It was –

Lead Inquiry: Indeed, it came out just before this Inquiry.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

On that first proposition, you accept of course that because the government did not wait further to see whether the measures of 16 and 20 March would work, we will never know?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, but I – but I had got – and I suppose that’s scientifically, you know, regrettable, but I thought we had no time to fight, we couldn’t wait.

Lead Inquiry: The second question: do you assess that if the government had acted sooner, had awoken to the true nature of the crisis and the seriousness of our position, and had imposed the measures of 12, 16 and 20 March earlier when the degree of viral transmission in the country was lower, that is to say there was a lower prevalence, then the need for a mandatory stay-at-home order – which, of course, was on the cusp of the decision-making on the Monday, 23 March – might have been avoided?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, that I have to say that I doubt, but I don’t know. I think that the virus was/is extremely contagious. I think that it was going to describe a pretty nasty curve almost whatever we did. I’m not certain that we would have been able to avoid the extreme action that we eventually took by acting a few days earlier but, you know, I would defer on that to scientists.

Lead Inquiry: And the third proposition: based upon in part the evidence from some of the scientific witnesses who have given evidence in this Inquiry, on the premise that the lockdown was necessary on 23 March, was it nevertheless imposed too late? Could it not have been imposed earlier had the government been rather more alert in middle to late February and in early March, had it not been blindsided to some extent by the debates about herd immunity and not going too early and behavioural fatigue and so on, and understood properly the data in its possession, thereby allowing it to impose the lockdown in the weeks of 9 or 16 March?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that the – all your conditionals I would delete, except the one about the data. I think that that was the key thing that the – that SAGE lacked, and it was – it was the sudden appreciation that we were much further along the curve than they’d thought, we weren’t four weeks behind France or Italy, we were a couple of weeks, maybe less, and they were clearly wrong in their initial estimation, we were clearly wrong in our estimation of where the peak was going to be.

And so the – that penny dropped, that – we realised that on the evening of the 13th into the 14th, and then we acted. But I think once we decided to act, I think it was pretty fast from flash to bang.

Lady Hallett: Perfect timing, Mr Keith. We’ll take a 15-minute break.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Back at 3.10.

(2.56 pm)

(A short break)

(3.10 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Mr Johnson, as is well known, after the first lockdown, your government published a roadmap out of lockdown in May.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: On 10 May, I think it was presented to Parliament, “Our plan to rebuild”. You make plain in your statement that you were extremely keen to re-open schools. Was that because you felt that keeping children out of school was arguably one of the greatest harms of the lockdown?

Mr Boris Johnson: Absolutely.

Lead Inquiry: You addressed the nation on 10 May and you included an instruction that those who could not work from home should be actively encouraged to go to work:

“So [to use your words] work from home if you can, but you should go to work if you can’t work from home.”

The witness statement from Mr Sunak expresses how he was frustrated that there was, as he sees it, overcompliance with the stay-at-home messaging, and he believes that the possibility, or rather the likelihood, that many people would ignore the active encouragement to go to work and not go to work had an exacerbation of the – exacerbated the economic impact of the lockdown.

In your communications with your colleagues on this subject, did you in July say this, in July 2021, looking back to 2020 –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “I arguably cocked it up last time with finger wagging to everyone to get on and do some work.”

Do you recall saying that, expressing regret a year later, that you had got the “work from home if you can but go to work if you can’t work from home” message wrong?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that it was a very difficult time, as we came out of – I mean, the whole thing was unbelievably difficult, but as we came out of lockdown in the summer of – early summer of 2020 for the first time, that, you know, some areas remained under a lot of restrictive measures, I felt strongly that people had made such a sacrifice to get the R down that we must try to allow people some freedom, and I wanted – I wanted the, you know, the benefits of the exertion, as it were, or the effort to get the R down to be felt throughout the country and for people to be able to do things again.

I think it’s probably true that I wanted to see people back in – back at work and I think that psychologically, emotionally, people – a lot of people were in a very different place, and they felt that they’d seen a terrifying pandemic, they were still very apprehensive, and they didn’t want government lecturing them about what to do.

So that’s probably what I’m getting at.

Lead Inquiry: Was the speed of the release very hard to gauge?

Mr Boris Johnson: Very.

Lead Inquiry: In Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries – INQ000273901, at page 66 – he described you as being “very bullish” and wanting everything to be “released sooner and more extremely than we would”. By “we” he means the scientists. And then, page 92, in the context of a meeting with the Prime Minister, actually having a discussion about “letting it rip”.

624 on 12 July:

“[Prime Minister] still wants to push opening too fast.”

And if you just pause there, then on INQ000094215, which is a WhatsApp group extract between yourself and Mr Hancock in the Top Team Group, on 15 July, you say:

“I was calling because I’m very worried about winter.

“We’ve gone fast on releasing lockdown … I’m getting no traction on doing what’s needed to protect the NHS …”

Cases in track and trace are “starting to rise”.

Of course, that’s dated 15 July, by which time the NHS track and trace system was up and running.

So may we presume from these messages that it was very difficult to decide whether you were going too fast, whether you were wanting to re-open, “let it rip” to use your words, or whether or not in fact you were going too fast and then becoming overly concerned or concerned about the winter and the rise in cases?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes. Well, so, first of all, on the WhatsApps with Matt here, I think you’ve got to remember that this is a Cabinet Minister also thinking about his budget. If you read that carefully, you can see that what he’s really saying is he needs more money, which is what all secretaries of state rightly do in their messages. So that’s part of the conversation.

But clearly the issue was that I think I always realised, and certainly nobody disagreed with me, that when we came out of lockdown – when we went into lockdown, as Patrick said in that first important press conference on March 12th, you can push it down, but in an unimmunised population it will bounce back. And so I always knew that throughout the summer we were basically in remission, as it were, and that the thing would come back, and it was a very – it was a very, very difficult judgement to make.

Lead Inquiry: You said that the last WhatsApp in the Top Team Group there, on the page on the screen, may be reflective of a Secretary of State being concerned with money.

Mr Boris Johnson: Part.

Lead Inquiry: Isn’t that your wording, or have we misread this? This is you saying “I’m very worried about winter” and him saying “What’s the evidence on rising new cases?” Or is it the other way around? We can’t tell from the –

Mr Boris Johnson: You – I may be totally wrong about this, but I read that as being Matt, Matt in the green, to me –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Boris Johnson: – saying:

“We can … take a risk on releasing lockdown, OR we can take a risk on not building up the NHS this winter.”

And what he is really saying, like all good secretaries of state for Health, is “Give us the money”, and – and – that’s what I understood partly. But also what he’s saying is the cases are rising, and that’s – you know, and that was no particular surprise to me. The question in the summer/autumn is: what’s the tactics? The objective is still protect the NHS, save lives, what’s – do we have any new tactics now?

Lead Inquiry: And it was apparent to the government, and to you personally of course, that cases started going up at a relatively early stage. They plateaued, of course. They came right down after the lockdown, then they plateaued for a while but they started to go up in July, so well in advance, in fact, of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, well in advance of September/October.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s exactly right. And contrary to, you know, our hopes in the early phases, certainly by the end of May, beginning of June, there is a very small percentage of the population has antibodies. So you’re looking at a huge number of people who are still potential Covid victims, and that’s very, very difficult.

Lead Inquiry: And, in fact, the percentage of the population that had been immunised by virtue of infection was very, very low; it was around about 6% or 7%?

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s exactly right.

Lead Inquiry: All right. And that, of course, was therefore dispositive of the arguments about herd immunity?

Mr Boris Johnson: Correct, you’ve got it.

Lead Inquiry: Because in fact very few people were immunised by virtue of infection –

Mr Boris Johnson: You’ve got it.

Lead Inquiry: – as it happened. All right.

Now, to divert to a completely different subject, the devolved administrations, please. In your statement, you say that the interests of the devolved administrations did not always align with England’s or the United Kingdom’s interests. That’s an inevitable part of a devolved system.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Was that a nod to the fact that the United Kingdom powers were constrained by public health legislation, the Coronavirus Act, Public Health Act, Control of Diseases Act, but on the ground this public health crisis was a devolved issue because it was for each devolved nation to determine its own course in terms of the public health measures it took?

Did it matter ultimately? There has been a great deal of evidence given about differences of approach in terms of presentation, debates about whether or not politically one or more devolved administrations took a different route or took a different route for political reasons. Also, whether or not, when they attended meetings, they were simply informed of what the position would be rather than being encouraged to generally debate the decision.

Overall, did the constituent parts of the United Kingdom generally work well in the face of this crisis?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, I hope what many of your respondents will also have said is that overwhelmingly the collaboration was excellent and the governments of the DAs, you know – there was far, far more that united us than divided us. I know that sounds trite, but it’s got to be said, and it was really a big UK effort and the country really pulled together.

I was making a much more limited point and, you know, it is no disrespect to the First Minister of Scotland or anybody else, chief ministers in Northern Ireland and Wales. They understandably were looking to talk 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 at risk of being confusing at a time when we really needed to land messages simply, and I could see – and people were endlessly playing back, oh, but, you know, Scotland says this, England says this, you know, Wales is doing a firebreaker – a circuit-breaker, and so on.

Lead Inquiry: You didn’t, I think, perhaps help yourself, though, Mr Johnson, in this debate because emails between Mr Cummings and Helen MacNamara show that Mr Cummings said:

“The PM view (and mine) on … COBRAS [this was in the context of the debate about who should attend COBR] is they’re hopeless as decision making entities and actively cause trouble for comms …”

Because some attendees at COBR (and Mr Cummings had in mind the devolved administrations) leak immediately afterwards.

Was that your view?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that sometimes that was the case, and that was a – that was, in my view, a problem. Perhaps we could have found a better way to manage it, but it – that was certainly one of the problems.

Lead Inquiry: The system was understood not to be working particularly well in terms of the government structures, the systemic structures at the top and in relation to the relationship with the DAs, because there was the series of the four ministerial implementation groups between March and May and they were then done away with and replaced by Covid-S and Covid-O.

You directed, following advice from your Cabinet Secretary, that there should be a new rhythm of meetings, the 9 am meetings to which the DAs were not invited, and you directed that consideration should be given to using something called the Joint Ministerial Committee. But the Joint Ministerial Committee was never used, was it, for the purpose of meeting with the DAs?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that the – so, first of all, I think the COBRs had the problems that we’ve identified. There was a problem with messaging, and I think that was a serious problem. I think that in future there has to be some way of having a joined-up, a UK pandemic response, and how you get to that, I’ve got an open mind. I see a lot of my colleagues are against the Civil Contingencies Act. I’m happy to defer to them on that point. I wonder whether you could amend the 1984 Public Health Act so as to have an exemption for pandemics.

It just seems to me that something needs to be done to fix this, whilst taking account of the legitimate concerns of the DAs, their legitimate desire to be involved and to contribute. But we need to find a better way to get a single message.

Lead Inquiry: There was a body called the Review of Intergovernmental Relations. I think it reported in January 2022, so just at the end of the pandemic –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – just at the end of the crisis which recommended that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should meet with the heads of the devolved governments on a regular basis, but that came later.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: During the crisis, you ordered that Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, should chair regular meetings with the devolved administrations, but there were difficulties, were there not, in setting up that structure? It took time for those meetings to be arranged; do you recall that?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t recall the delay, but I do remember asking Michael to do it. I think he was ideally placed to do it. I think he did a very, very good job of working with the DAs. That didn’t stop some of the raggedness that I’ve talked about.

If I had my time again, with hindsight, I think it’s an area where I would have tried – even though I was very pushed for time, I would have tried to spend more time with the DAs and really tried to bring them with me. But, you know, I’m afraid it may just be that I’m overestimating my ability to get a consensus. I think there was always the risk of divergence.

Lead Inquiry: Well, you may, with respect, be misrepresenting your true views, because in your statement you said:

“It is optically wrong, in the first place, for the [United Kingdom] Prime Minister to hold regular meetings with the other DA First Ministers …”

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think that’s – I happen to think that’s also true.

Lead Inquiry: Well, they can’t both be right, Mr Johnson.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think that – well, sometimes you can do things that you think are, you know, constitutionally a bit weird if it will help the general cause of fighting the pandemic.

You know, let me summarise. I think that there’s an issue. It’s not a huge, huge issue, nothing like as big as many of the other issues that the Inquiry needs to look at, but we do need to sort it out. We need a better way to get at a unified message for the UK.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Johnson, you didn’t try very hard, to use your words, to bring the DAs with you, because you took the view that optically it was wrong to be seen to be meeting with their First Ministers because it might look like a kind of, to use your words, “mini EU”. You asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster –

Mr Boris Johnson: I did.

Lead Inquiry: – Michael Gove, to chair the meetings instead, and you made it quite plain to the First Ministers of the devolved administrations that you had taken the view that they were prone to leaking from the COBR meetings, and also prone to taking decisions in this public health crisis for nakedly political reasons.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I’m not certain that I said that to them in so many words, but maybe – maybe you’ve got some evidence that I did.

I certainly thought that that was a risk, and from time to time I … I felt that the coherence of the UK message was being undermined, and there’s got to be a way to fix it. I thought Michael did an excellent job. I sometimes wonder whether I could have done more in that respect myself, but frankly I doubt it.

Lead Inquiry: There were obviously divergences of approach, both in relation to the substantive responses to the crisis – tiers, firebreakers, circuit-breakers, and what was done in relation to schools and so on – and there were also differences, were there not, in relation to public communications? So the messages, messaging across the United Kingdom wasn’t always pointing in the same direction.

Ultimately, did it matter that there were those differences of approach, epidemiologically, or that in terms of communication you were not all singing from the same hymn sheet?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think it did matter. I think that clarity and unity of message was very important.

Lead Inquiry: Data. Plainly, the United Kingdom Government was, where it could, taking decisions in relation to what should be happening in each of the four nations of the United Kingdom, as I say, not directly in public health terms, but obviously it was trying to apply an allied or a unanimous approach.

Did you feel that you, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Government, had sufficient data, sufficient scientific advice as to what the position was on the ground in each of the other nations epidemiologically?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think that when the pandemic broke out, we were short of data about many things. We didn’t even know the number – as I think I say in my statement – of beds in the NHS, and it took a long time to extract relevant data.

Lead Inquiry: There was a general continuing concern raised with you, because Ms Sturgeon wrote to you in September 2020, about whether or not the devolved administrations were receiving enough financial support in order to be able to enable them to put into place the public health measures that they had ordained; in essence, because they are devolved nations, they don’t have access to the same levers of fiscal power as the United Kingdom Government. How was that issue resolved or did it continue throughout the crisis?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that the issue of financial support was obviously allied with the issue of divergence of approach, because clearly if it was open to a DA to take, for instance, a much more precautionary approach or to say that they wanted to do X, Y, Z policy that would be more expensive, then that was something that we were going to – the whole of the UK Exchequer was going to have to cover.

Now, that – it wasn’t that I wanted unity of message for that reason, but that was a – that was certainly an extra complication.

Lead Inquiry: In his statement, Michael Gove says:

“In the early stages of the response there were occasions where insufficient notice was given to the devolved administrations of decisions that were likely to be taken.”

In her witness statement, Ms Sturgeon says:

“I believe both that communication should have been better, and more importantly, that the devolved administrations should have been integral to that decision-making.”

Would you accept, perhaps with hindsight, that the decision-making process, insofar as it involved the DAs, was not as good as it might have been?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think some form of integrated decision-making that doesn’t leak is what you’re after.

Lead Inquiry: Local government.

It would seem that in March 2020 there was a deliberate decision within Downing Street not to invite the Mayor of London to meetings until 16 March. He says that he made repeated requests to attend. He requested to attend COBR on 2, 9 and 12 March, but was not permitted to do so. Did you know that? Do you agree with that?

Mr Boris Johnson: Certainly London was very, very much in the forefront in the early stages of the pandemic, and I know that the Mayor of London was repeatedly consulted by my advisers in Number 10. I’m sure that there was a lot of traffic between them and Sadiq Khan. I think that he was invited to a meeting on the – from memory, on the 16th, I may have that wrong, but I certainly spoke to him pretty early on. But as you said right at the end of the last session, you know, we began by thinking we might do London first but then we dropped that idea.

Lead Inquiry: The Mayor of London was not invited to the government’s formal crisis machinery, COBR, until after the first national measures had been imposed by the United Kingdom Government; is that correct?

Mr Boris Johnson: And that is because we didn’t, in the end, do London-first measures, and there was some sensitivity about other Metro Mayors.

Lead Inquiry: I think in relation to the Metro Mayors, save on one occasion, 12 October, when the Mayor Of Liverpool, Andrew Rotherham attended, no metro mayor was invited to attend COBR at any time.

Mr Boris Johnson: Right. Right.

Lead Inquiry: The evidence from Sadiq Khan, from Mr Burnham and Mr Rotherham is to the effect that there was generally insufficient information given to local leaders, and in the context, Mr Johnson, of the local restrictions in the summer of 2020, and of course the tier system in October and December –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – of 2020, that was a very significant failing, was it not?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, first of all, I’m grateful to Mr Rotherham, to Andy Burnham, to Mr Khan, all the mayors, for the work that they did and the leadership they gave to their own communities. And, you know, you talk about Andy Burnham, you know, there were several – there were parts of the country that barely came out of measures for the whole of the year and –

Lead Inquiry: Manchester.

Mr Boris Johnson: Exactly – and they had a very, very tough time, and we did our best to offer support and to engage with them, and to help, but some of the negotiations, as I’m sure we’ll come to, were extremely difficult.

Lead Inquiry: One of Sir Patrick Vallance’s entries appears to suggest that in relation to Manchester and Mr Burnham, a Covid-S meeting at which you were present, openly drew a distinction between the support and measures that would be given to Manchester as opposed to Liverpool for nakedly political reasons. Would you agree? Did that happen?

Mr Boris Johnson: Are you saying that – I’m not certain there was a Conservative Mayor of Liverpool.

Lead Inquiry: No, it’s that a view was taken upon the nature of the local leadership in Manchester and a view was taken about how co-operative it was being –

Mr Boris Johnson: Oh, I see.

Lead Inquiry: – and therefore Manchester would be treated differently to Liverpool.

Mr Boris Johnson: Right. I don’t remember that at all. I think that Liverpool certainly was – the people of Liverpool were heroic in trying to get mass testing going, and again there was terrific hardship because of the lockdowns, but they made a – they were vital to the campaign to get mass testing going.

Lead Inquiry: Another separate issue, please: the consideration of vulnerable and at-risk groups. And you’ll appreciate, Mr Johnson, that on account of your position as Prime Minister, many of these issues would only perhaps fleetingly have come to your attention, and of course only at the highest possible level, and therefore there is a distinct restriction on the detail into which we can go in debating them.

Helen MacNamara in her statement makes this general point: that across the advice and discussions in the Cabinet Office and in the heart of government, there was a striking absence of humanity or perspective about how people or families actually lived, and her sense was that the group of people in your inner coterie and in the Cabinet were a most homogeneous group of people –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – and were taking decisions that probably called for a much broader representation across society. Would you agree with that general proposition?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that there is some force in that and, I mean – but – so some force in the description of the people in and around those meetings at some of those key times.

I don’t accept what Helen says about the measures that we took, but it is – and she said some things, I think – and, you know, I pay tribute to Helen, she did an amazing job – but I think that it is not right or fair to say that policy was conceived and driven forward without regard to the particular needs of women, for instance, the – a huge amount of thought went into the question of hidden harms, of domestic violence, there was the access to abortion, to drugs necessary, the – we put money into – we had a domestic violence Bill, as you may remember, in, I think, March 2020, which goes through the Commons very fast. We put money into ISFAs and IDFAs, we set up a helpline, we have systems whereby victims of domestic violence can identify themselves without risk of exposure by going to certain premises.

We were very, very alive, and I was personally very alive. To this issue. So I was – you know, I was surprised when she said that, because I know how much she cared about it, and I believe that we did a lot on that.

On the broader question about – you know, leaving aside the issue of gender, I think there was a – and this needs flipping the other way round now. I think sometimes we didn’t think hard enough about the impact on – of lockdown on different groups, and sometimes, frankly, it was easy or much easier for, you know, people with professional jobs to sit out the lockdown than it was for others, whether they’re in the hospitality sector or whatever. And they – and a lot of people who, you know, were on lower incomes really had a pretty – a pretty tough time of it. And I think that it was vital to focus on those people, and to do everything we could to help them through lockdown, but also to realise that lockdown was hitting those groups particularly hard. And for me that was a reason why you had to be so careful about going back into a national lockdown in October/November.

Lead Inquiry: It’s necessary to distinguish between –

Mr Boris Johnson: Or September.

Lead Inquiry: – the first lockdown and the second one, of course.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: My Lady asked you earlier to what extent did you consider the economic arguments against lockdown and you said you had to give them short shrift. May we take it that, on account of the speed with which the government had to act in that week of 16 and 23 March, relatively little consideration was given by the government to the impact of lockdown similarly?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think a huge amount of consideration – I think a huge amount of consideration was given by the government to the impact of both lockdowns, and we thought about it extensively, I think the –

Lead Inquiry: No, not the general impact, Mr Johnson, but –

Mr Boris Johnson: Forgive me.

Lead Inquiry: – by reference to your earlier answer, the needs of individual sectorial groups, for example but by no means limited to black people or BAME –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – sectors. It’s –

Mr Boris Johnson: So –

Lead Inquiry: It wasn’t something that was at the forefront of the government’s consideration in that week?

Mr Boris Johnson: So both lockdowns were at the forefront of our consideration, in their diverse impact, but also Covid was the subject of consideration, because of what appeared to be its diverse impact. And as I’m sure you know, we commissioned a lot of work into the way Covid seemed at first to be striking particular communities harder.

Lead Inquiry: But that wasn’t apparent until April. At the 16 and 23 March, there was great consideration given, of course, to shielding and to –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – clinical impact?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: But there was relatively little, if any, consideration given to social impact, upon the disproportionate way in which a national lockdown might impose itself and might impact upon various sectors in society; that’s correct, isn’t it? Where in the notes and the minutes that you have been shown to is there open debate about the likely impact on the vulnerable and at risk of the national lockdown that was imposed on 23 March?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think that you can find – well, I couldn’t point you to, off the top of my head, any particular text, but what I can tell you is that the whole time we were thinking: look, who gets hit when you close non-essential retail and you close hospitality and you stop people moving around? The relatively affluent professional classes are probably going to be better placed to cope with this than others. And you will find that there are large numbers of black, minority ethnic community members represented in those sectors who were particularly disadvantaged by the lockdowns.

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Boris Johnson: And so, you know, whether or not you can find any mention of this in the material you’ve looked at, I know that this was one thing that we were thinking about as a particular reason for being anxious about the effect of lockdowns.

Lead Inquiry: There was a general consideration at a generic level of the impact of lockdown, there was a clinical and financial consideration of those who needed to shield, there was a broad understanding that if the R rate could be brought below 1 and prevalence reduced, that would be for the greater benefit of all, but it wasn’t until April, and the first few weeks of May, that the information started to come to light that members of the black and minority ethnic communities were suffering more, that the lockdown was having a greater and disproportionate impact upon them. That’s correct, isn’t it?

Mr Boris Johnson: I don’t remember exactly when it came to light, but it was intuitively obvious that it was going to happen and it was one of the reasons that we were – I was very cautious about going back into a national lockdown.

Lead Inquiry: That’s later, of course. And to be fair, you –

Mr Boris Johnson: It’s one of the reasons – sorry, putting it the other way around, it was one of the reasons I was keen to see if we could get moving again.

Lead Inquiry: All right. And you instituted a review. We’ve heard evidence that Kemi Badenoch –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: – MP carried out a very extensive review. Over a number of years, I think over two years, there were – perhaps, or maybe a year, there were four quarterly reports.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: You were, I think, less sympathetic to the needs of those persons suffering from long-term sequelae, that is to say suffering from the condition known as Long Covid. You questioned for quite some time whether or not that condition truly existed, and you equated it to Gulf War syndrome repeatedly. Is that fair?

Mr Boris Johnson: Not really, no, but can I – so can I just come back on that and say, first of all, the words that I described in the margins of submissions about Long Covid have obviously been now publicised and I’m sure that they have caused hurt and offence to huge numbers of people who do indeed suffer from that syndrome, and I regret very much using that language and should have thought about the possibility of future publication, and I regret it very, very much. What I was trying to do was to get to the heart of the matter, get to the truth of the matter, and to try to get my officials to explain to me exactly what the syndrome was, and it actually took quite a long time before I got a proper paper on it. I think it wasn’t until … I’ll get this wrong now, but I think it wasn’t until 2021, the summer of 2021, before I actually got a paper on Long Covid. But I did, as you say, ask repeatedly to get some information. And that was so I could explain to people what we were doing and what the issue was.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Johnson, the point is that in October of 2020 you’d scribbled these remarks on a report to you about the funding from the NIHR into a Long Covid survey. You continued to make disparaging references to whether or not this was Gulf War syndrome stuff in February 2021, in the context of an update given to you on 21 February. And then still later, in June 2021, so nine months or so later, you were still questioning whether or not Long Covid was to be equiparated with Gulf War syndrome.

So it’s not that – it’s not that the challenge against you is you took a position on Long Covid in the absence of a proper clinical understanding or advice from your advisers; it is that notwithstanding the repeated placing of reports before you, you carried on questioning Long Covid until many months later.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I’m not certain that’s correct, because I don’t think I got a full explanation of – or a full paper on it until the summer of 2021.

Lead Inquiry: The full paper was on 1 June 2021, that’s correct, and you responded by saying:

“Thanks – so it’s not exactly gulf war syndrome.”

And that was your take on the Long Covid condition.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes. Sorry, it’s no disrespect to Long Covid patients, and I saw in the victim impact videos some of the victims of Long Covid, and I can imagine what a dreadful thing it is. But there are also with Gulf War syndrome many people who have terrible symptoms for a very long time. There are also people who think they may be suffering, I think this is the – now accepted, from something associated with the Gulf War, but who are not in fact suffering from something associated with the Gulf War. So what I was trying to say was: where is the – where is the line? And please can someone explain to me what this is?

Because I was getting, you know, anecdotal accounts of people who were suffering from it, and I wanted to be able to say what we understood it to be and what we were doing about it. And what we were doing about it is fighting Covid, because the way to stop Long Covid is to stop Covid.

Lead Inquiry: One final topic in relation to the broad overarching issue of disparity. You indeed commissioned, as you’ve said, Mr Johnson, the report by Kemi Badenoch, who led a significant cross-government exercise on the disproportionate impact of Covid on ethnic minorities, I think following a report from Public Health England in June 2020.

Do you happen to know why it was that that report – that work done by Kemi Badenoch didn’t cover disabled persons? It’s a technical question –

Mr Boris Johnson: It’s a very good –

Lead Inquiry: It’s not clear why –

Mr Boris Johnson: It’s a very good question, Mr Keith, I will make sure that the Inquiry gets an answer, but I can’t – I can’t give it to you off the top of my head.

Lead Inquiry: May we then now turn back to –

Mr Boris Johnson: And it doesn’t mean that the interests of the disabled were not looked at in some other –

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

Mr Boris Johnson: – format, because I’m sure they were.

Lead Inquiry: Now, returning to the chronology and having just for the moment put to one side those overarching but general issues, Mark Sedwill. You said earlier that Mark, now Lord Sedwill, suggested he should move on and you agreed.

Could we have – well, no, I don’t think we need to put it up. In his witness statement, Martin Reynolds, your private secretary, talks about the meeting that he had arranged for you to meet with Mark Sedwill –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – on 14 May, and your diary shows a meeting with him on 14 May:

“I identified a slot on 14 May … for me to run the [Prime Minister] through the findings of the review.”

You’ll recall that Helen MacNamara had produced a report and Mark Sedwill had himself produced a report.

“The [Prime Minister] decided instead to use this slot for a one-to-one conversation with Mark Sedwill, where he told him that he had lost confidence in him …”

So which is it? Is it that you lost confidence in him, which is a question I asked you earlier, or is it that Mark Sedwill told you he wanted to move on and you agreed?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, Mark Sedwill did an outstanding job for this country for a long time and he was a very distinguished permanent secretary, I think, at the Home Office, he was a National Security Adviser, he’s done everything, and I was and remain hugely grateful to his service. He wanted to move on.

Lead Inquiry: The evidence from Mr Cummings and Martin Reynolds and Helen MacNamara is that, regardless of the genesis of why he moved or was effectively sacked, whichever way my Lady concludes, that regardless, as I say, of that genesis, his departure or his impending departure “led to general bad blood”, “sowed chaos”, says Mr Cummings, Mr Reynolds says damaged stability in the civil service. And Helen MacNamara, led to:

“… a real and damaging impact. It made those in the Civil Service in the centre less confident about challenging: no one was safe if the Cabinet Secretary was not, and dealing with the unravelling preoccupied a number of us for critical weeks.”

Would you agree that the consequences of his contingent departure did have wider ramifications, quite damaging impact, in fact, on the civil service, in Number 10 and Cabinet Office?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think that there was a fantastic array of talent in the civil service, and that they did a very good job. I think that what did matter in that period, and the thing that was getting us all down was the knowledge, creeping or otherwise, that this thing was coming back, and we needed to deal with it, and it was going to be very hard and we needed to get organised to do it. And that was, I think, the thing that made people scratchy.

Lead Inquiry: Helen MacNamara prepared, as you know, a report on the workings of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, and without going through it in detail, because it’s been placed before the Inquiry repeatedly, it identified very significant concerns in the working operations of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, did it not?

Mr Boris Johnson: I saw the – I’ve seen two versions of this document –

Lead Inquiry: Yes, there was draft and then a final version.

Mr Boris Johnson: So I saw the final version. I think what this document reflected was a – yeah, a civil service unease about the challenging approach of some of the special advisers and I had to make a judgement about that particular issue, and I decided on balance that, at a very difficult time for the country, I’d rather have a Number 10 where people challenged ideas and where people brought new ideas and where people felt free to say things than a Number 10 where everybody tried to pretend that all was continuously well, because all was patently not well with the country and we needed to – we needed to fix it.

Lead Inquiry: So may we be clear about this, Mr Johnson. If your concern was that there had been a civil service unease about the challenging approach of some of your special advisers, and you plainly mean Mr Cummings there, your response was not to support the civil service and deal with Mr Cummings, you sidelined your Cabinet Secretary and kept Mr Cummings?

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, that’s your way of describing things.

Lead Inquiry: Well, is that what you did?

Mr Boris Johnson: I certainly – look, let me get back to Sir Mark. He decided he wanted to move on, that’s what he told me. On the issue of my – the rest of my team and the culture in Number 10, yes, it was occasionally argumentative, but I think that was no bad thing, and we – we needed, frankly, to have an atmosphere in which people felt able to say things that were going to be controversial at the time.

Lead Inquiry: Mr Johnson, without labouring the point, a great deal of evidence has been given to the effect that there were systemic problems in Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, wrong people in the room, wrong people in the wrong jobs, people talking over each other, God complex, leadership issues, toxicity, misogyny, perpetual internecine warfare. Either you were aware of all that, in which case why did you not act, or if you were not, why were you not aware?

Mr Boris Johnson: So none of those things was put to me in the terms that you have just done, first of all. Nobody came to me and said this is – you know, this is – people have got God complexes and internecine warfare going on here. What I saw was a country that needed continuous urgent action and it needed solutions to be found, and what I wanted were meetings in which people could speak their minds without fear of being embarrassed or being seen to say something foolish. And that’s one of the reasons, by the way, why I sometimes spoke bluntly and freely in meetings: I wanted to give everybody cover to do the same, I wanted people to feel that they could – if they had an idea, then I wanted to hear it.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, can I just interrupt? I’m sorry, Mr Keith, I appreciate, can you hold that train of thought, whatever it was.

Mr Johnson, one of the reasons I have been interested in the culture in Number 10 is whether or not, if there had been different structures in place, then this kind of culture may not have arisen and that might have provided you with a better framework for decision-making and seeking advice.

So, I was looking – for example, we were looking at how initially the ministerial implementation groups, they didn’t really work, and so – until eventually you got the Covid-S and Covid-O and they did work. And I was just wondering if you had a kind of structure whereby something like Covid-O, Covid-S, whatever, swept into operation the minute the Prime Minister said, “Right, this is a dire emergency, a pandemic”, might that help?

Mr Boris Johnson: My Lady, look, I think that you’ve put your finger on it, and that – the problem, frankly, was that the system, the Cabinet Office, the ministerial – the MIGs, it was all too diffuse, and things, in my view, only really started to come together when we had a rhythm of morning meetings where everybody could say their piece and that would set the agenda for the day. That wasn’t necessarily a decision-taking meeting, but what I would submit is that for future pandemics there needs to be a – more clarity about which are the debating – the discussion meetings and which are the decision-making meetings.

Because what would often – what would happen is that I would be presented with a problem, and then within the space of half an hour we would have got to the solution, and then we’d have to do it all again in the – in a separate format or with – or through the Cabinet or whatever.

And I think that some work – and, I mean, it’s a microscopic issue by comparison with much of what we have been talking about, but some work needs to be done on those procedures, so that the Prime Minister has a – when he goes into some meetings knowing that these are decision-taking meetings and is given all the evidence on both sides of the argument. Because that was not happening. What was happening was we were having a meeting, we would say: here’s the problem – the R is taking off, the tiers aren’t working – what do we do now? And I would try to come to an answer, but it – I felt that the structures were – you know, we had the difference between Covid-O and Covid-S, but to be absolutely frank, I don’t think if I was sitting in a Covid-O or a Covid-S I could have told you whether it was a Covid-O or Covid-S. I was just sitting in meeting after meeting trying to deal with the problem.

Now, that was the most effective way to do it. You needed to be – you needed to be sitting permanently on the bridge trying to deal with it all. And, you know, back to the culture, I had to make a decision about – and, you know, I knew that some people were difficult, I didn’t know how difficult they were, clearly, but I thought it was better on the whole for the country to have a disputatious culture in Number 10 than one that was quietly acquiescent to whatever I or the scientists said.

Mr Keith: Mr Johnson, in a WhatsApp to Mr Cummings you described him and you and your administration as having indulged in an “orgy of narcissism”. That’s not disputatious culture, is it?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think, with – I think, with respect, that WhatsApp was sent –

Lead Inquiry: At the end.

Mr Boris Johnson: – of the year, when I think things were becoming – you know, some of the things that were not obvious to me had become more obvious.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000048313, page 17, is a WhatsApp in May, in fact, so earlier in the summer, a WhatsApp from Mr Cummings to you. I think it’s a screenshot from Mr Cummings’ witness statement. If we could scroll into the top of the page:

“if hancock texts really coming to meetings in no10 [please] just ignore. We urgently need to have meetings without him …”

That’s Mr Cummings. And then this:

“All too recognizable.

“We need to rebuild the [government] from top to bottom.

“We need to take over the cabinet and run the whole thing.”

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah, this is me on the left, is it?

Lead Inquiry: Well, that was my question. The top right is obviously Mr Cummings –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – because he’s asking you to ignore Mr Hancock’s texts, which says, perhaps, something about the system –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, so this is –

Lead Inquiry: No, no, just wait one moment.

Is it Mr Cummings or you who says “We need to rebuild the [government] from top to bottom … take over the cabinet office and run the whole thing”?

Mr Boris Johnson: So what I’m getting at here and what this is a reference – is this in May?

Lead Inquiry: It is, 13 May.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah. So this is a reference to a plan that we hatched to try to do – have a massive data-driven revolution in government and to use Covid and this moment, when we were finding out so much about people’s propensities to illness of all kinds, to run a much more effective government, and we opened a big office in 70 Whitehall, a big open plan – a bit like this, actually, where the idea was that we would assemble data and we would – we would try and do things in a different way. I have to tell you it was not a success and –

Lead Inquiry: Mr Johnson, it is well known that a new data system was set up, the 10DS system?

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: It’s called 10 data system or 10 Downing Street, whatever your preference, and there was a greater provision of data throughout summer 2020, particularly from April/May onwards. But this message doesn’t refer to data, does it? It doesn’t refer to setting up a new data stream, it talks about rebuilding the government from top to bottom and taking over the Cabinet Office –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – which wasn’t, of course, itself responsible for data, it had multifarious functions, not one of which was provision of data to central government?

Mr Boris Johnson: No, but, sorry, what I meant – the office that we were – that we created was in the Cabinet Office, it was in 70 – what is – it was in 70 Whitehall, and so that was what I was talking about. I want – I agreed that things needed to change, and I wanted a data-driven reform of government.

Lead Inquiry: Two further points on this topic, please.

Firstly, Mr Case’s WhatsApp messages with his predecessor, Mark Sedwill, INQ000303245, page 1.

I don’t want to go through this line by line, Mr Johnson, but if you just scroll your eyes down the page, you will see multiple references to the behaviour in Downing Street and, in essence, Mark Sedwill saying, “I agreed to stay on for now subject to various conditions about behaviour and systems”.

The fact that he says – well, “[I’ve] agreed to stay on” may say something about his departure. But there are references on this page to:

“… not willing to agree to do any job back in this version of the centre without guarantees/honest conversations with the [Prime Minister] about behaviours. I will work …”

Mr Boris Johnson: Sorry, where is this?

Lead Inquiry: You will see that in the middle of the page.

Mr Boris Johnson: Oh, yes.

Lead Inquiry: There we go.

18/05/2020, 08.29, so that passage:

“I will not support any version of No 10 that undermines any Cabinet Secretary, let alone you. I will … do my utmost to support a [Prime Minister] but I am [very, very] cautious about walking back into this.”

There is then a reference to the conversation with you about behaviours, at 18/05/2020, 08.59.


“… I don’t want to go near these people … [unless] there are … guarantees about behaviour.”

18/05/2020, 22.25.32:

“I hear from everyone that you have made the [Prime Minister] see sense and the only thing that is happening is creation of a Covid job? … I am almost more appalled that the Prime Minister has done all of this …”

And that’s completely put me off my stride.


“… has done all of this … damage, when all he really wanted was a point person for COVID.”

18/05/2020, 22.29.46:

“… I … hammered the game playing. Covid now … Lead the work … Fine. If it sticks. I’m not sure he [that’s you] saw sense. He just gave in when I made clear how angry I was at the behaviour.”

And so on and so forth.

They made it absolutely plain to you that there were very real problems in the operation of Number 10, in part because of the behaviour of Mr Cummings, in part because of your own approach to leadership and the decision-making, and in part because you had effectively sacked Mark Sedwill.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, several things. I don’t remember any conversations about behaviour with either of these people. I don’t remember any particular complaints being raised by Simon Case about anybody’s behaviour. I think that, you know, you should take these points up with the current Cabinet Secretary. I understand, you know, he can’t –

Lead Inquiry: They have been taken up with Mark Sedwill, who has been a witness in this Inquiry, Mr Johnson.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well …

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Mr Boris Johnson: That’s good.

Lead Inquiry: Finally –

Mr Boris Johnson: What I would say is that I don’t think it was a bad thing to have people who were willing to challenge the consensus and get things done and, you know, whatever you may say about the government, it did get an awful lot of things done, and I think that’s what the country needed at the time.

Lead Inquiry: And a lot of things were not done as well as they might otherwise have been done; is that not equally possible, Mr Johnson?

Mr Boris Johnson: I think it’s – I think what is certainly – that’s always true, but I don’t happen to think that when it came to the management of the pandemic, and this is I think the crucial thing, when it came to the management of the pandemic, the – any kind of differences, feuding or whatever between officials, which I’m sad to say are just what happens in places like Number 10, I don’t think any of that made the slightest difference to our processes and our decision-making.

Lead Inquiry: But you could have stopped it. If we look at –

Lady Hallett: I think we probably need to move on from this.

Mr Keith: There is one final point, which is a matter which –

Lady Hallett: All right.

Mr Keith: – my Lady intervened to ask a question about when the evidence was given.

Lady Hallett: I was stopping you asking a question I wanted. Right, okay.

Mr Keith: The Inquiry was shown a WhatsApp from Mr Cummings which was particularly offensive about Helen MacNamara.

Mr Boris Johnson: I saw, yes.

Lead Inquiry: It was sent to you and others in your WhatsApp group, but you maintained a silence and you never spoke up to say “That is unacceptable and it cannot be allowed to go on on my watch”.

Mr Boris Johnson: I did see that, and I – I don’t remember it now, but I don’t remember seeing it at the time, but I must have seen it because I was on the group.

Lead Inquiry: You were.

Mr Boris Johnson: I’ve rung Helen MacNamara to apologise to her for not having called it out and … you know …

Lead Inquiry: If you’ve done that –

Mr Boris Johnson: I’ve apologised to her.

Lead Inquiry: Finally this afternoon, the DHSC and Mr Hancock.

A considerable amount of evidence has been given to the Inquiry that the lead government department model may not have been appropriate for a whole system crisis like Covid. You understand what the lead government department model is.

Mr Boris Johnson: Yeah.

Lead Inquiry: It will plainly function well at the beginning, it may function less well when the whole of government is engaged, and perhaps too much pressure is placed on the LGD. It can’t accommodate the weight of the whole system response.

There is considerable material in Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries and in the witness statement of Mr Cummings to the effect that there was a high degree of chaos in the DHSC, that there was operational inefficiency – Sir Patrick Vallance talks about this – all the way through to May 2021.

Were you aware that competent, very senior advisers in your administration held the view that the DHSC had been overwhelmed and was operationally inefficient?

Mr Boris Johnson: I was certainly aware that the DH – the Department of Health and Matt Hancock were coming under fire, and – but I want to go back to the high level point I made earlier about what all this signifies, and the ways in which it should be read and understood.

First of all, it’s the kind of stuff that would never have previously come out from any administration because it’s now on instant social messaging of a kind that previous governments didn’t have. This is instant chitchat between people who would normally have said this to each other’s face, wherever, in the corridors or wherever –

Lead Inquiry: I’m so sorry, Mr Johnson, will you allow me – I’m so sorry to interrupt. You may have misunderstood my question.

Mr Boris Johnson: Forgive me.

Lead Inquiry: The material consists not just of WhatsApps and evening notes but also witness statements –

Mr Boris Johnson: Sure.

Lead Inquiry: – which talk about a high level of operational inefficiency or chaos, however you –

Mr Boris Johnson: Yes, so –

Lead Inquiry: – in the DHSC. I’m not talking about the more personal or intimate –

Mr Boris Johnson: Oh, I’ve got you. No, no, I’ve got you. I’ve got you.

Lead Inquiry: – remarks in the WhatsApps.

Mr Boris Johnson: I’ve got you. No, I totally understand.

Lead Inquiry: Were you aware that that view was taken generally of the DHSC?

Mr Boris Johnson: I was aware, yes, certainly. I was certainly aware that the DHSC was under fire from loads of people, but that was hardly surprising, because the country was going through a horrific pandemic, and I just want to – what I should have – got quickly to the point. The point is you’ve got a lot of very talented, sometimes superconfident, sometimes egotistical people who are crushed with anxiety about what is happening to their country, who are wracked secretly with self-doubt and self-criticism, and who externalise that by criticising others, and it’s human nature.

And when you’re the leader in those circumstances, your job is to work out what is justified and what is people sounding off and what is political nonsense. And my judgement was that Matt was, on the whole, doing a good job in very difficult circumstances and there was no advantage in moving him, as I was being urged to do. That was my judgement.

On the lead department point, I think that, yes, it was a huge burden on Department of Health to be the lead department for a while but that, you know, rapidly morphed into the centre running everything, and that was inevitable.

Lead Inquiry: Why were – you suggest in response to my question that these criticisms were made because people were crushed with anxiety and wracked secretly with self-doubt and self-criticism. Whatever the psychological mood of Sir Patrick Vallance, Mr Cummings –

Mr Boris Johnson: I’m not – sorry, I don’t wish to –

Lead Inquiry: No, no, forgive me –

Mr Boris Johnson: – give that, those psychological states to any individual but –

Lead Inquiry: No, no. Wait for the question, please.

Whatever states they were in, and even if they were in a state of being crushed by self-criticism and self-doubt, that hardly explains why a significant number of witnesses describe objectively chaos inside the DHSC.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, I think it goes – I think the reason is that you’ve got a once-in-a-century pandemic for which, sadly, there was no proper preparation in the country because we didn’t know how to deal with a highly contagious coronavirus pandemic, and all the pressure initially was on good, hard working Department of Health officials who of course felt under huge, huge personal and professional obligation to get things right, and who naturally were in a state of great anxiety.

And, you know, I just get back to my point, that my job was to decide whether the – that problem, which I think was inevitable, could be solved by moving people or whether we had to forge on, and I thought it was better to forge on.

Lead Inquiry: Regardless of the state of the individuals in the DHSC, and acknowledging the remarkable and extraordinary efforts made by so many people individually within and without government to respond, it was part of your function as Prime Minister to ensure that the lead government department, the DHSC, was responding and dealing with the crisis as best it could. You were obliged to ensure that your government was operating properly, systemically. You knew that other advisers, senior advisers in your administration, were telling you that the DHSC was not operating well, it was chaotic and dysfunctional, and there were very real concerns being expressed about its Secretary of State.

Why did you not take a grip on that issue?

Mr Boris Johnson: Because, first of all, I thought that the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, Chris Wormald, was outstanding and, secondly, for the reason – I repeat what I have said. I thought in the circumstances that Matt Hancock was doing a good job. He’s extremely – well, he’s intellectually able, he was on top of the subject, and whatever his failings may or may not have been, I didn’t see any advantage to the country, at a critical time, to the country, in moving him in exchange for someone else, when I couldn’t be sure that we were necessarily going to be trading up.

And I thought it was – I thought that – I did think about it – of course I thought about it – but I thought that was the best thing to do. But what we also did was we took control and the management of the pandemic was basically centralised in Number 10.

Lead Inquiry: So is this the nub of it: throughout April, May, June, July you were aware that a number of senior advisers and civil servants were highly critical of Mr Hancock; you were told by Mark Sedwill around 2 July that you should sack him; you were aware that he had a tendency to overpromise, because you debated long and hard with Mr Cummings the merits of what you had been told about testing; and there was a general lack of confidence that what he’d told you was accurate, but that you stuck by him for good or ill?

Mr Boris Johnson: I didn’t stick by him for, you know, any – any reason other than that I thought, on the whole, in incredibly difficult circumstances, he was doing a good job, that it was not obvious to me that the trade – that moving him would be worth the disruption, and I also thought – which is true – that in any political environment at some stage somebody is always telling you to sack somebody, and that is just, I’m afraid, what happens in politics. And so I had to aim off –

Lead Inquiry: And the last question, please, on this: in his witness statement, Mr Cummings says:

“In summer 2020 [Mr Johnson] refused to replace [Mr] Hancock despite … repeated requests from me, both Cabinet Secretaries and many others and … being told repeatedly that leaving him there guaranteed further disasters and deaths in the autumn … His Political Secretary … told me that the [Prime Minister] wanted to keep [Mr] Hancock as ‘the sacrifice for the inquiry’.”

Now, that is of course, you may say, a piece of double hearsay, but Mr Cummings has it in his witness statement and therefore you need to answer it.

Mr Boris Johnson: Well, sure. Well, I don’t remember that at all, and … and it’s nonsense.

My thinking was very straightforward. I had a Health Secretary who was able, who was a good public communicator, in my view. I felt that whatever his defects I wasn’t clear that we were going to trade up by doing a swap. I thought it was a very, very difficult time to do that. And I wasn’t persuaded by the arguments.

And I don’t, by the way, remember – he says “both Cabinet Secretaries”, I don’t remember either of them specifically saying this, but, you know, maybe – I certainly remember – I certainly remember there was … there was anti-Department of Health militating, that’s for sure.

Lead Inquiry: On 2 July Mark Sedwill WhatsApps Simon Case and says:

“I told the Prime Minister to sack Hancock (to save lives and protect the NHS) …”

Mr Boris Johnson: Right.

Lead Inquiry: But you don’t think he did tell –

Mr Boris Johnson: Did you ask him about that?

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

Mr Boris Johnson: Right. I mean, I’m not – I don’t remember him saying that in so many words.

Mr Keith: There we are.

My Lady, is that a convenient moment?

Lady Hallett: It is, thank you very much.

A very long day for you, Mr Johnson.

The Witness: Thank you very much.

Mr Keith: I’m afraid another long day tomorrow, but that will be it. We’ll finish tomorrow.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: So 10 o’clock tomorrow, please.

Mr Keith: Thank you, my Lady.

(4.27 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Thursday, 7 December 2023)