WhatsApp reveals Boris Johnson went on 10-day break after warning virus ‘would sweep world’ - what you missed

Johnson said he took 'personal responsibility' for all decisions made by the government during the pandemic

TOPSHOT - A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry shows Britain's former Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry, in west London, on December 6, 2023 to give evidence. Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson will face tough questioning at a public inquiry on December 6, 2023 over his government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, after a barrage of criticism from his former aides. Johnson, who has been accused of indecisiveness and a lack of scientific understanding, is expected to admit that he
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at the COVID-19 Inquiry, went on holiday after ebing told the virus was "out of control". (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/AFP via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson went on holiday for 10 days in February 2020, after being told that the COVID virus would "sweep the world" WhatsApps reveal.

Speaking at the COVID Inquiry on Wednesday, Johnson said he did not take a long break in February half-term 2020 and was still working.

He said “there wasn’t a long holiday that I took” and agreed he returned to Downing Street three times during that period.

However, a WhatsApp message sent on 6 February showed Johnson took a break after his top adviser Dominic Cummings warned the virus was "out of control now" and would "sweep world".

The session kicked off with several hecklers, who were removed from the inquiry after being told to sit down as Johnson apologised - one later told the press outside that she "did not want his apology".

During the session, which lasted from 10am-4.30pm, Johnson was questioned on the speed of the government's response to the COVID outbreak, as well as in-fighting, lockdowns and WhatsApp messages.

With Wednesday's session now over, here are the highlights from Boris Johnson's tough day of questioning:

  • Johnson said he was “not sure” whether government decision-making had led to “materially” a larger number of excess deaths as a result of the pandemic - questioning the counsel's description of the UK as among the worst performers in Europe.

  • Johnson admitted he should not have shaken hands with patients at the Royal Free Hospital in London during the early days of COVID.

  • The former prime minister said that he regretted not having more women in top positions and it was something that “should have done better”, adding that there were “challenging and competing characters" in his administration.

  • Johnson admitted questioning why his government was destroying the economy "for people who will die anyway soon

  • Johnson defended keeping his health secretary Matt Hancock in his post despite being adviser to sack him, although he said he did not recall Hancock asking for an earlier lockdown.

  • Johnson said Downing Street head official's message saying 'I’ve never seen a bunch of people less well-equipped to run a country' was par for the course in politics.

  • Government was not as alarmed as it should have been over COVID in early days, Johnson said, as a result of previous memories of viruses such as Sars - which spread less widely.

You can read more about Boris Johnson's testimony in our blog below.

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  • Harriet Sinclair

    Johnson says he wasn't persuaded by arguments to sack Hancock

    Boris Johnson was asked about evidence from his former aide Dominic Cummings who said Johnson refused to sack Matt Hancock despite being told repeatedly that leaving him there "guaranteed further disaster and deaths in the autumn".

    "I don't remember that at all, Johnson said. "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 wasn't persuaded by the arguments.

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    Earlier hospital admission could have saved my fiance, woman tells COVID inquiry

    Constance McCready gave evidence to the Scottish COVID-19 Inquiry on Wednesday about her partner Jim Russell.

    Read the full story from PA

  • Harriet Sinclair

    COVID, not staff changes, made officials 'scratchy', says Johnson

    Boris Johnson denied that Lord Mark Sedwill’s departure as cabinet secretary sowed chaos and damaging impact on the civil service, arguing COVID-19 was the reason officials were “scratchy”.

    Johnson’s decision to effectively sack Sedwill “set off a kind of bomb” across Whitehall, his former top aide Dominic Cummings previously told the COVID-19 Inquiry.

    The former prime minister said: “I don’t think that’s the case. I think that there was a fantastic array of talent in the civil service and 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 (coronavirus) was coming back and we needed to deal with it…

    “And that was I think the thing that made people scratchy.”

  • Harriet Sinclair

    'More clarity' is needed for future pandemics, says Johnson

    Boris Johnson called for changes in the way decisions are made at the heart of government.

    He told the inquiry: “What I would submit is that, for future pandemics, there needs to be more clarity about which are the debating, the discussion meetings and which are the decision-making meetings.

    “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 a separate format or through the Cabinet or whatever.”

    The former prime minister told the inquiry: “To be absolutely frank, I don’t think if I was sitting in a COVID O (operations) or COVID S (strategy) I could have told you at any given moment whether it was a COVID 0 or a COVID S, I was just sitting in meeting after meeting, trying to deal with the problem.

    “That was the most effective way to do it. You needed to be sitting permanently on the bridge, trying to deal with it all.”

  • Harriet Sinclair

    Boris Johnson chokes up speaking about COVID in 2020: ‘Tragic, tragic year’

    Boris Johnson appeared to choke up as he spoke about the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 at the COVID Inquiry on Wednesday, 6 December. The former prime minister gave evidence in which he admitted his government “underestimated” the threat in the early days of the pandemic.

    Read the full story from The Independent

  • Harriet Sinclair

    Johnson says he regrets comparing long COVID to Gulf War syndrome

    Boris Johnson said he regrets "very much using that language" about people suffering from long COVID, but added that it was "scribbled in the margin of submissions about long COVID".

  • Harriet Sinclair

    Not right to say policy didn't consider women or other groups, Johnson says

    Boris Johnson said he was “surprised” about comments by former top civil servant Helen MacNamara to the inquiry about decision-making regarding vulnerable people.

    She was concerned about such a homogenous group taking decisions on the needs of the most vulnerable and the limited perspectives available.

    “I think that there is some force in that, 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 that we took.”

    He said it was “not right or fair to say” that policy was created without regard for the needs of women or other groups.

  • Harriet Sinclair

    Ten times Boris Johnson was cornered by Hugo Keith at the COVID inquiry

    Ex-Conservative leader faces tough questions from counsel Hugo Keith KC.

    Read the full story from The Independent

  • Harriet Sinclair

    Johnson says London mayor was repeatedly consulted by advisors

    Boris Johnson was pressed on Sadiq Khan’s claim that he had requested to attend Cobra meetings in March but was rejected.

    He said that the “Mayor of London was repeatedly consulted by my advisers in Number 10 and I’m sure 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.”

    He said that the government dropped the idea of “doing London first” in terms of restrictions.

  • Harriet Sinclair

    Meetings with first ministers would look like 'mini EU', Johnson feared

    Boris Johnson said he did not want to have meetings with the first ministers from the devolved administrations (DAs) because it would look like a “mini EU”.

    The former prime minister said he would like to see a way where a more unified UK message could be delivered in future pandemics.

    “I think that in future, there has to be some way of having a joined-up, UK pandemic response,” he said. “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.”

    The inquiry heard Johnson was reluctant to meet the heads of the devolved governments, with chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove put in charge of regular meetings with them.

    Johnson said “with hindsight” he would have spent more time working with them to “bring them with me”, but in his statement Johnson said it was “optically wrong” for the UK’s leader to meet the heads of the DAs.

    Asked to explain that apparent contradiction he said: “Sometimes you can do things which you think are constitutionally a bit weird if it will help the general cause of fighting the pandemic.”