Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Covid-19 inquiry is not until Wednesday but it is already making headlines in the Netherlands amid a mixture of amusement and alarm at claims he asked for British spies to plan a “raid” on a Dutch vaccine plant.
The operation – according to sources who briefed Johnson’s employer, the Daily Mail – would have taken place against the backdrop of a tit-for-tat row in March 2021 between the then prime minister and the EU, which was moving towards restricting exports of vaccines across the Channel.
An “enraged” Johnson asked security services to draw up “military options” to obtain “impounded” doses of AstraZeneca vaccine from a plant in Leiden after Britain had negotiated a deal with the company.
But while Britain’s security services were spared their biggest debacle on Dutch soil since Operation Market Garden, the claim has been widely reported on front pages in the Netherlands. Elsewhere, Russian state media generated a po-faced report on the claims, interspersing clips of Johnson with footage of British special forces and overlaying them with a sinister backing track.
The Dutch ministry of foreign affairs confirmed it was “aware” of the report but declined to comment.
Johnson is expected to refer to the episode, potentially in a written statement accompanying his evidence to the inquiry, which will take place over the course of Wednesday and Thursday.
Figures close to Johnson have been busily briefing the media before his appearance, advising that he will reject claims that he was not sufficiently engaged in policy during the 10-day period.
The former Conservative leader will reject claims that he did not concentrate on the looming threat of the pandemic during the half-term break in February 2020 because he was supposedly writing a biography about William Shakespeare.
A spokesperson for Johnson previously rejected reports that he was focused on the book during the critical period in question but Downing Street also did not deny that Johnson had worked on the book, for which he received a £88,000 advance from his publisher Hodder & Stoughton UK in 2015, since becoming prime minister in July 2019.
“The evidence shows, from the diary extracts, that he wasn’t away all the time. He came back into the office from Chevening. The records show he was working the whole time, he wasn’t writing a book … We think this one is quite easily dealt with.” the Telegraph quoted a source close to Johnson as saying.
Johnson is expected to admit some fault when he is cross examined at the inquiry but will also seek to talk up the things that he believed he got right, ranging from the vaccines rollout to eventually opening up the economy.
He will argue that those criticising him have been doing so from specific perspectives – including science, the economy and broader public health – and that he was the only person who had to balance all of these things.
The former prime minister will resist going on the attack, according to his supporters, and will also seek to offer ideas about how the UK could cope with a future pandemic.