Boris Johnson: What he said about the big COVID scandals during pandemic

As Boris Johnson prepares to give evidence to the COVID-19 Inquiry, Yahoo News explains how he responded to his government's scandals during the pandemic.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference in the Downing Street Briefing Room in central London on May 25, 2022, following the publication of the Sue Gray report. - UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected calls to resign after an inquiry Wednesday found that he presided over a culture of lockdown-breaking parties that featured drunken fighting among staff. Johnson is among dozens of people in Downing Street who have received police fines for breaching Covid regulations since 2020 -- making Number 10 the most penalised address in the entire country. (Photo by Leon Neal / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LEON NEAL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson has a number of scandals from his time as prime minister during COVID. (Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is expected to defend his approach to the pandemic as he gives evidence to the COVID-19 inquiry on Wednesday.

The former prime minister has faced claims of dithering over major decisions, with the inquiry previously hearing how former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance criticised his "impossible flip-flopping".

His former top adviser, Dominic Cummings, nicknamed his old boss as "the trolley" due to his alleged indecisiveness and susceptibility to outside advice that would persuade him to change direction.

Johnson is expected to apologise this week and accept his government made its share of mistakes during the pandemic, although he is also likely to defend his cabinet's calls on some of the bigger decisions.

The former PM is likely to emphasise the success of the UK's vaccine programme and, according to The Times, will argue the timing of his lockdowns saved “tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives”.

However, there are plenty of things Johnson said during the pandemic that could come back to haunt him on Wednesday, including on PPE procurement, Cummings' trip to Barnard Castle and Partygate - which eventually led to his resignation.

Here, Yahoo News takes a look at what Johnson said over his government's various scandals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Lockdown parties

One of the biggest scandals faced during Boris Johnson's premiership was Partygate.

As stories of ministers and civil servants throwing boozy gatherings in Number 10 and elsewhere in Whitehall emerged in late 2021, many people who'd made great sacrifices to follow COVID restrictions were angry at the political establishment for not doing the same.

At the time, Johnson took an evasive tone, telling the House of Commons multiple times that all the rules were followed at these gatherings.

He remained defiant as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer grilled him on 1 December, 2021, about a Christmas party in Downing Street, telling MPs: "What I can tell the right honourable gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No 10."

Johnson was later found to have deliberately misled parliament over the Partygate saga, as laid bare in a scathing 30,000 word report by the Commons privileges committee. This led to his resignation as PM.

Dominic Cummings' infamous 'eye test' at Barnard Castle

It is not normal for an aide to the prime minister to hold a press conference by themself – but that's just what Cummings did after he travelled across the country during the height of lockdown.

He drove 260 miles from London to Durham in late March 2020, with his wife and child to stay at a farm owned by his parents. He says his wife was unwell at the time and that he later became sick with what they thought was COVID.

Then, in an attempt to explain why he drove 30-minutes away to Barnard Castle in mid-April, Cummings said his vision had been affected by the virus and that he wanted to "test" if his eyesight had recovered enough to drive.

In the fallout of this scandal, Johnson said his then-adviser's defence was “very, very plausible”. At a Downing Street press conference in May, he said he was ready to "draw a line" under the matter, and even prevented his top scientists from answering questions on the issue.

“I’ve said quite a lot on this matter already and what I also note is that what Durham police said was that they were going to take no action and that the matter was closed," he added.

London, UK. 28th Jan, 2022. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnsons former Chief political adviser, outside his house. He has given his evidence to the Sue Gray inquiry. He has publicly stated that he witnessed Boris Johnson attending a party at Number 10. Credit: Mark Thomas/Alamy Live News
Dominic Cummings has already answered questions on his trip to Barnard Castle at the Covid inquiry. (Alamy)

Matt Hancock's affair

In another row over politicians breaking the rules they'd set, former health secretary Matt Hancock was forced to resign after he was caught kissing aide Gina Coladangelo in his office in breach of social distancing rules.

Three days after the story emerged, Johnson suggested it was right for Hancock to go, saying: "I read the story on Friday and we've got a new health secretary in post on Saturday and I think that's about the right pace to proceed in a pandemic."

However, when the affair was first revealed by The Sun on Friday, June 25, 2021, Johnson's spokesperson told reporters that he'd accepted Hancock's apology and considered the matter "closed".

Hancock resigned the following evening in a letter, saying: "We owe it to people who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic to be honest when we have let them down."

Did Johnson say we 'shouldn't overreact to COVID' at start of pandemic?

Johnson said in early 2020 that the "best thing to do" would be to ignore the virus and warned that there would be a bigger danger in overacting, according to a BBC report from March 2021.

His official spokesman refused at least three times to deny the claims.

Speaking at the COVID-19 Inquiry last week, senior minister Michael Gove defended Johnson's approach during the early stages of the pandemic, arguing his reluctance to impose lockdown measures sooner was to do with his liberal "political outlook", rather than out of indecisiveness.

Gove said he initially shared Johnson's concerns over the impact "overreacting" would have on the economy but said he changed his mind after seeing data from Italy and information from friends outside government.

201215 -- LONDON, Dec. 15, 2020 -- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend a cabinet meeting in London, Britain, on Dec. 15, 2020. London will move into Tier Three, the highest level in England s local coronavirus restriction tier system, from midnight on Wednesday, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Monday. Photo by /Xinhua BRITAIN-LONDON-COVID-19-TIER THREE RayxTang PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxCHN
Boris Johnson is likely to face difficult questions over his approach to COVID early on in the pandemic. (Alamy)

The PPE scandal

The Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC) lost 75% of the £12bn it spent on personal protective equipment (PPE) in the first year of the pandemic to inflated prices and kit that did not meet requirements.

That's according to a damning Parliamentary committee report from June 2022, which said £4bn of PPE that will not be used in the NHS needed to be disposed of.

It prompted claims that Johnson's government was wasteful and nepotistic in its allocation of huge contracts during the pandemic.

Responding to the PPE scandal in a statement in March 2022, the DHSC said: "Having too much PPE was preferable to having too little in the face of an unpredictable and dangerous virus."

In November 2020 Johnson said he was "proud" of his government's PPE contracts, telling Parliament: "We shifted heaven and earth to get 32 billion items of PPE into this country."

'Let the bodies pile high'

It's a phrase that will live in infamy, and one that has been utilised by the COVID-19 Bereaved Families For Justice group.

According to one of his most veteran aides, Johnson said he would rather "let the bodies pile high" than impose another lockdown in September 2020.

Edward Udny-Lister made the revelation to the COVID Inquiry on 7 November this year, adding that the former PM also asked to be injected with COVID-19 live on TV in order to "demonstrate to the public that it did not pose a threat".

Johnson denied making the remark about dead bodies on multiple occasions - both on television and in the House of Commons.