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Thursday briefing: What Boris Johnson did – and did not – reveal at his Covid inquiry grilling

<span>Photograph: Covid inquiry</span>
Photograph: Covid inquiry

Good morning.

For about six hours yesterday, Boris Johnson finally had a chance to defend his record against the blistering criticism levelled against him over the course of the Covid inquiry since it started in June 2022. Evidence handed over to the inquiry has revealed that senior figures in his administration had significant doubts about Johnson’s ability to lead and govern, creating an image of chaos, disorganisation and dysfunction during an unprecedented global health crisis.

As was expected after numerous press leaks, Johnson opened with an apology, stating that he was sorry for the “pain and the loss and the suffering” caused by the pandemic and acknowledging that his government “may have made mistakes” that added to the hurt. He also took personal responsibility for all decisions made by the government.

The stakes of this inquiry to some were immediately evident when four members of bereaved families held up pieces of paper that read “the dead can’t hear your apologies”, as the former prime minister spoke. Protests continued outside and during one of the breaks another person yelled out “you’re a murderer” at Johnson.

To get a rundown of the most important takeaways of yesterday’s session, I spoke with the Guardian’s politics editor, Pippa Crerar. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Robert Jenrick | Rishi Sunak’s government was plunged into crisis after his immigration minister quit just hours after the prime minister tabled a bill to save his Rwanda deportation policy. Robert Jenrick said the bill was “a triumph of hope over experience” and would mean that the policy will be challenged again in the courts.

  2. Israel-Hamas war | UN secretary general, António Guterres, has said that he expects “public order to completely break down” in Gaza amid Israel’s continuing bombardment, “rendering even limited humanitarian assistance impossible.”

  3. Hillsborough disaster | Ministers have rejected the “Hillsborough law” reforms that are central to a campaign by families of the 97 people killed in the 1989 disaster to prevent future police cover-ups. Instead the government has signed a “charter” that states a commitment by departments to openness and transparency after public tragedies.

  4. Cop28 | The head of the International Monetary Fund has said that carbon pricing, a way to put an implicit price on carbon emissions, would generate the vast amounts of cash needed to tackle the climate crisis. It is a traditionally unpopular policy as in practice it can hit poorer people hardest if it is badly applied.

  5. Energy | A “toxic culture” of bullying, sexual harassment and drug-taking risks compromising the safety of Europe’s most hazardous nuclear site, multiple employees at Sellafield have claimed.

In depth: ‘This is his last-ditch attempt to rewrite history’

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What was not said

The most surprising part of Boris Johnson’s first session was not anything he said, but his tone, which was uncharacteristically deliberate and restrained. “He is obviously aware that this is a really important moment in terms of shaping his own legacy, particularly because some claim he still harbours long-term hopes of making a political comeback,” Pippa says. Whether it will make a difference to the public, who lived through the impact of the government’s decisions, is unlikely. “What he can do, though, is not make it worse for himself,” Pippa adds.

“In stark contrast to his appearance at the Privileges Committee in March, in which he got very angry and that actually led to a tougher sanction, he has been quite measured,” Pippa says. “He has said as little as possible and even when he was defending his actions he was trying not to be inflammatory.”

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What have we learned about the government’s response?

One of the biggest contentions around the government’s Covid response has been the chronology: who knew what when and why did they not act sooner.

Johnson conceded that in the early months of 2020, his government had “underestimated” the seriousness of the disease. He said he told then health secretary Matt Hancock to keep an eye on the situation, but there was no urgency until the end of February, despite reports that 11 municipalities in Italy had locked down. The scenes “rattled” Johnson, he said, adding that the government should have “twigged” how serious the situation was at that point.

Johnson said that, despite the fact that he was told Covid had a 2% fatality rate, the government was operating under a “fallacious, inductive logic” that meant they did not take those warnings as seriously as they should have. All the way up to mid-March, Johnson’s advisers were not pushing for a full lockdown despite rapid increases in Covid cases around the world.

The former prime minister was also asked about his “disparaging remarks” regarding long Covid, which he called “bollocks”. Once confronted with this statement, Johnson apologised and added his remarks were never meant for publication.

He also said that he did not oscillate on key decisions in the run-up to the first lockdown, despite what his former adviser Dominic Cummings has previously said, insisting that he was just considering all the different arguments on both sides to work out the best course of action. “That feels a bit like a convenient excuse, because it’s his job to test the politics,” Pippa says. “It’d be negligent not to consider those factors, but what we’ve heard from pretty much everyone who’s given evidence so far is that even if he did want to hear all sides of an argument, he himself swung between the results.”

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Misogyny and a toxic work culture

A key theme throughout the inquiry has been the toxic work culture in No 10 at the time. Johnson insisted that the “abusive” messages sent between staff were not an example of this but a normal exchange between impassioned colleagues. Rebutting Hugo Keith KC’s suggestion that the mud-slinging and “friction in government was causing a problem”, Johnsons said that if Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher’s staff had had WhatsApp, their exchanges would have been “pretty fruity”.

Though Johnson has tried to distance himself from the claim that there was a toxic work atmosphere he also tried to defend the working culture. Pippa says that there is a contradiction in what he has said: “On the one hand, he says he’s not responsible for this toxic atmosphere. On the other hand, it sounds as though he was actively encouraging a quite aggressive approach almost to government policy.”

Johnson also said that there were too many men in meetings, an admission that came after Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, gave damning evidence to the Covid inquiry about misogyny.

***

The fallacy of herd immunity

One of the biggest errors in the government’s early Covid strategy was herd immunity, a form of indirect protection achieved when most people have been infected and the virus cannot spread any more.

The idea was first mentioned on 5 March 2020 and persisted until the 14th. Johnson said the strategy was misunderstood by the public: he said they hoped herd immunity would be “a by-product” of what the government was doing – not that it was the policy itself. For a detailed breakdown on the other issues heard at the inquiry yesterday, read Matthew Weaver and Ben Quinns explainer.

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What can we expect to hear today?

Johnson is expected to be giving another full day of evidence today. Keith will probably continue his questioning in chronological order, picking up where he left off yesterday.

Expect to hear about the decisions that led up to the second winter lockdown in 2020, Partygate, and Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard castle.

“The biggest thing here, though, is that this is Boris Johnsons’ last-ditch attempt to rewrite history, but I think he will struggle to do so,” Pippa concludes.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Time magazine announced their person of the year for 2023 – Taylor Swift, who this year became “the main character of the world”. As Sam Lansky writes, the larger narrative of Swift’s life “is about redemption”. Clare Longrigg, acting head of newsletters

  • As Rishi Sunak and other rightwing leaders begin to step back away from their climate commitments, the world grows warmer. Diyora Shadijanova has written a brilliant article on how this regression will impact all of us. Nimo

  • In the holiday season, when longed-for family reunions can become ill-tempered before the main course is on the table (see The Bear’s season two episode, Fishes), Elle Hunt examines why we regress to adolescence when we’re back under our parents’ roof. Clare

  • If you want some ideas on how to make your wardrobe more sustainable, five writers have spent the last month mending, sewing, and washing their clothes less. Nimo

  • “I feel entirely in the moment”: Miranda Bryant joins the old and very young at the sauna, and in this sacred space for community and solitude, discovers why Finns are the happiest people in the world. Clare

Sport

Cricket | Danni Wyatt shone on her record 150th Twenty20 international appearance as England began their first tour of India in four years with an impressive 38-run victory in Mumbai. Wyatt hit 75 and Nat Sciver-Brunt made 77, with the pair sharing a match-winning stand in an imposing total of 197 for six.

Tennis | Emma Raducanu has missed out on the initial batch of wild card entries for the Australian Open. The former US Open champion has a protected ranking of 103 due to her lengthy absence from the tour following multiple surgeries but that is not currently high enough to secure entry to next month’s grand slam tournament.

Athletics | UK Athletics is set to announce record losses of £3.7m for the financial year after failing to secure a title sponsor or television deal in the buildup to the Paris Olympics.

The front pages

The Guardian leads with “Tories in turmoil as immigration minister quits over Rwanda bill”. The Financial Times reports “Sunak’s drive to unite Tories behind Rwanda bill implodes as Jenrick quits”. The Telegraph says “Immigration minister quits as PM warned of ‘electoral oblivion’”.

The Times has “Rwanda bill is doomed says Jenrick as he quits”, while the i says “Jenrick quits as Sunak takes on Tory right over migration”. The Mail asks “Will the Tories ever give up fighting each other and start fighting Labour?”

Elsewhere, the Mirror reports on Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Covid inquiry under the headline “The dead can’t hear your apologies”. Finally, the Sun reports that Anne Robinson is secretly dating Andrew Parker Bowles with “Queen of mean dates Queen’s ex”.

Today in Focus

The lives and lies of George Santos

George Santos seemed to have had an amazing life. He had worked on a Broadway show, appeared on the children’s series Hannah Montana, been a star volleyball player, was a noted academic and a successful businessman whose company was worth millions. Now he was in Congress pushing policies such as making the AR-15 rifle the national gun of America.

But as it turned out, many of the stories he told about himself were not just exaggerations, but outright lies. Adam Gabbatt explains to Michael Safi how his rise and fall pose worrying questions about the US political system in a post-truth era.

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

In a pioneering new scheme, England’s first fishing apprenticeship launched earlier this autumn in south Devon. The result of years of work from industry leaders, the apprenticeship is seen as a vital part of efforts to ensure there will still be a British fishing industry in decades to come.

To draw them in, new apprentices (including Alfie Steer, pictured above) are offered pay, a relationship with a specific employer and training for skills they could use throughout their lives. “These young people won’t be as experienced as other crew,” said lead tutor Mark Day, “but they will be in the top 10% of deckhands in terms of the skills we have taught them.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.