Covid inquiry: 10 questions facing Boris Johnson

<span>Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP</span>
Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

What will he apologise for?

It is expected that Johnson will make an apology at the inquiry, conceding that the government was too slow in realising the severity of the virus, and blaming a lack of preparation.

Will he concede that he was too complacent in those early weeks? And will he apologise for his attitude towards the impact on older people?

The inquiry has heard repeated evidence that Johnson thought too much emphasis was being spent on protecting them. At one point, the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, noted that Johnson was “obsessed with old people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life”.

Did he fail to take Covid seriously enough at the start?

There have been repeated suggestions Johnson did not appreciate the dangers when fears about Covid began to rise at the start of 2020. One official has already told the inquiry he believed that, early in the pandemic, Johnson asked: “Why are we destroying the economy for people who will die anyway soon?”

The former prime minister did not chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency group until March. Even in late March, his diary suggests he spent time meeting media mogul Evgeny Lebedev, who he later made a peer. Matt Hancock has said that locking down sooner would have saved “many, many lives”.

Was he on holiday at a crucial time?

Cabinet minutes have revealed that Johnson said “confidence is contagious” as he prepared to take a holiday in February 2020, just as scientists were worried the NHS could be overwhelmed. Was he overconfident in deciding to take a holiday in the same month that crucial discussions had to be taken?

Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to Johnson, arrives at the Covid inquiry on 31 October 2023.
Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to Johnson, arrives at the Covid inquiry on 31 October 2023. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

The inquiry has been told that Johnson had no communication with officials over a 10-day period during half-term.

His former adviser, Dominic Cummings, has also accused him of disappearing to write a book about Shakespeare that he had already been paid for. Johnson denies this.

Does he now regret the party culture in Downing St?

The partygate scandal has been covered by previous examinations – accounts of “wine time” Fridays have been reported, and Johnson himself was fined for breaching rules.

However, the Covid inquiry has heard more damning evidence about the culture of rule-breaking that existed in Downing St during the pandemic. Helen MacNamara, a senior civil servant at the time, told the inquiry it was likely that Covid guidance was breached every day.

Ultimately, Johnson was the boss, and details of rule-breaking and drunken partying emerged after repeated denials that any rules had been broken.

Did Johnson misunderstand the science behind Covid?

Among some of the extraordinary claims made by Cummings in his testimony was a disturbing nugget about Johnson’s grasp of the science behind tackling Covid.

Cummings said the former PM asked his chief medical and scientific advisers whether Covid could be eliminated by blowing a hairdryer up your nose – based on something he had seen online. Cummings describes it as a “low point”.

Vallance said Johnson had last studied science at age 15 and “would be the first to admit it wasn’t his forte”. He said he sometimes pretended to misunderstand to test an alternative.

Does he now admit saying ‘let the bodies pile high’?

Reports that the PM said the government should “let the bodies pile high” in the autumn of 2020 surfaced some time ago. Johnson has previously dismissed them as “total rubbish”. However, the outburst has been given more credibility after one of Johnson’s long-term allies, his one-time chief of staff Lord Udny-Lister, told the inquiry that Johnson did make the statement in the context of wanting to oppose a third national lockdown. Lister said he heard the angry outburst in a September 2020 meeting. He describes it as “an unfortunate turn of phrase” used under intense pressure.

Did a toxic environment in his No 10 hinder the Covid fight?

Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara giving evidence at the inquiry.
Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara giving evidence at the inquiry. Photograph: PA

It is already clear that during the pandemic, there were huge clashes between officials and politicians. MacNamara said that there was a “toxic culture” in operation. While Cummings (above) appears to have been pushing for a tougher approach to Covid, he has also been accused of creating a toxic atmosphere, once referring to MacNamara as a “c*nt”, saying he wanted to “handcuff her and escort her” from Downing St. Lister said: “Some of the personalities made it very, very toxic … Dominic Cummings’s relationship with other people had become very strained.” Why did Johnson allow that culture to persist?

Should he have acted to keep schools open sooner?

The closure of schools and the impact on children – especially from the most deprived families and areas – remains one of the main issues to emerge in the handling of the pandemic. Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England during Covid, has already said that the government made a “terrible mistake” over schools – with pubs and hairdressers emerging from the first lockdown before schools. Meanwhile, Hancock has argued that the closure of schools again in January 2021 could have been avoided had the prime minister ordered an earlier lockdown that winter. Schools have complained of a lack of resources to teach.

Related: Families of Covid victims to confront Johnson at inquiry over ‘Let the bodies pile high’ comment

Does Johnson now think ‘eat out to help out’ was a good idea?

The inquiry also offers Johnson an opportunity to cause trouble for Rishi Sunak, whom he blames more than anyone else for precipitating the end of his premiership. While it may not have had a significant impact on the overall course of the pandemic, government scientific advisers have made clear they saw “eat out to help out” as a bad idea that would aid the spread of the virus. The scheme was drawn up by the Treasury. Ultimately, Johnson led the government that approved it, but any attempts to raise difficult questions for Sunak will be noted with interest in Westminster.

Why didn’t he listen to scientific advisers sooner on a second lockdown?

In the autumn of 2020, when Covid cases were rising, Johnson invited figures opposed to lockdowns to a major meeting about a possible “circuit breaker” lockdown. Present were Carl Heneghan, an Oxford professor and lockdown critic, and Dr Anders Tegnell, who led Sweden’s response with no lockdowns. WhatsApp messages now show government advisers in despair. There were concerns about Johnson’s approach. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, wrote in September 2020: “He cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach.”