July 14, 2024

Regretful but unruffled, Boris Johnson acknowledged on Wednesday that as Britain’s prime minister during the pandemic, he had underestimated the emerging threat of the coronavirus in early 2020. But he rejected suggestions that his government’s initially sluggish response had driven up Britain’s death toll.

Speaking before an official inquiry into the government’s handling of the crisis, Mr. Johnson apologized for “the pain and suffering and the loss” of those who died from Covid, and of their families. He said the families deserved answers, as he submitted to two days of grilling about his leadership and judgment during those frantic days.

“There are clearly things that we could have done, and should have done, if we’d known and understood how this was spreading,” Mr. Johnson said. “We collectively should have twigged much sooner” to the rapidly looming danger posed by the virus, he added. “I should have twigged.”

Still, Mr. Johnson said he was doubtful that acting earlier would have made a big difference. He sparred with the committee’s chief counsel, Hugo Keith, over whether Britain’s death toll, currently at 230,193, placed it among the worst-hit European countries, or merely in the middle. (Britain’s per capita death rate is higher than that of France or Germany, and only marginally lower than that of Italy, the European country most ravaged in the first wave of infections.)

Mr. Johnson, whose time in office was defined and ultimately derailed by the pandemic, was the most eagerly anticipated witness so far in the inquiry, an independent, public examination of Britain’s response to Covid-19, led by a former judge, Heather Hallett, that is expected to continue until 2026.

His daylong testimony mixed references to epidemiological data with detours into the locker-room language used by Mr. Johnson and his aides. Though there were no startling revelations, it added up to a revealing glimpse into how Britain’s leaders groped for a remedy to a once-in-a-century health crisis.

Mr. Johnson arrived at the hearing room shortly after 7 a.m., hours before the session began, allowing him to avoid Covid victims’ family members who later gathered to protest his appearance. Ms. Hallett had to call on protesters several times to stop disrupting the hearing as the former prime minister began to speak.

Mr. Johnson generally kept his cool during the first day, showing only a flash of irritation as Mr. Keith pressed him about whether he had taken his eye off the ball in February 2020 when he retreated to Chevening, an official residence outside London, and failed to chair several government meetings about the crisis.

“Nobody is suggesting you had your feet up at Chevening,” Mr. Keith said.

“Apart from you, that is,” a visibly peeved Mr. Johnson replied.

It was Mr. Johnson’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who had testified that Mr. Johnson was away during that period, working on a book on Shakespeare that he owed his publisher. Mr. Johnson, who did not mention the book, insisted he had been briefed on the crisis throughout that February.

When asked about the decisions for which he was apologizing, Mr. Johnson singled out difficulties in coordinating England’s public health messages with the authorities in Scotland and Wales, then said that he did not want to prejudge the conclusions that would unfold from his evidence.

“Inevitably, we got some things wrong,” Mr. Johnson said, while insisting that he and his aides had been doing their best at the time.

But asked whether he had read any more than a small fraction of the available minutes from the deliberations of the government’s key committee of outside advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, Mr. Johnson admitted that he had not, saying he had consulted them “once or twice.”

Mr. Johnson also struggled to explain his inability to produce some 5,000 WhatsApp messages from his old cellphone, sent during the pandemic and sought by the inquiry. He insisted that he had not removed them himself by performing a factory reset of the device and said he had provided all the evidence he could.

In one exchange, Mr. Johnson was asked about the work culture in 10 Downing Street — described by other witnesses as chaotic and toxic during his tenure — as well as about failings of his leadership and WhatsApp messages from Mr. Cummings, who had criticized the performance of the health secretary at the time, Matt Hancock, in scathing terms.

The text exchanges, Mr. Johnson said, showed that WhatsApp is “intended to be, though clearly it isn’t, ephemeral.” He played down the “pejorative and hyperbolic” language, arguing that it had actually revealed creative tensions in the government. It would have been much worse, he said, to have led a government so deferential that senior figures never challenged one another.

“If you are prime minister,” he said, “you are constantly being lobbied by somebody to sack somebody else.”

Mr. Johnson rejected claims that he tolerated a “toxic” work environment, accepting only that the gender balance among his senior team had been poor, with too many meetings dominated by men. But he said he called a senior female civil servant to apologize for not objecting to a message sent to him by Mr. Cummings, in which he described her with a crude, misogynist epithet.

Asked whether he had fired Mr. Cummings and the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, Mr. Johnson said, “They both stepped aside from government, but it was a very difficult, very challenging, period.” He added: “They were getting very frazzled, because they were frustrated. Covid kept coming at us in waves.”

Mr. Johnson was not asked about Downing Street social gatherings that violated lockdown rules — a scandal that forced him out of Parliament after a committee concluded in June this year that he had deliberately misled lawmakers about his attendance at some of those parties.

Experts said the testimony on Wednesday gave Mr. Johnson a chance to explain how he navigated between ministers like Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister then serving as chancellor of the Exchequer, who warned about the damage of shutting down Britain’s economy, and Mr. Cummings, who urged Mr. Johnson to impose lockdowns.

“Some of that flip-flopping was him listening to Rishi Sunak one day and Dominic Cummings the next,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.

With so much attention focused on government infighting, however, some experts questioned whether the inquiry was doing enough to set out lessons that would allow Britain to avoid missteps in the next pandemic.

“Where does this leave us, beyond trying to elect a different prime minister the next time?” Professor Sridhar said.