Boris Johnson has defended himself against accusations of indecision during the pandemic, telling the Covid inquiry in evidence that it was his duty to consider whether lockdown did more harm than good.
In his written submission to the inquiry, Johnson explains how torn he was in March 2020 about forcing people to stay at home to save lives.
“It is true that I have reflected (no doubt out loud and no doubt many times) about whether the lockdowns would do (and did do) more harm than good,” Johnson said in a page of his evidence that has been published because it was briefly shown to the inquiry on Thursday.
Johnson’s evidence appears to confirm a note from his aide Imran Shafi, who recalled that the former prime minister was concerned that lockdown was “killing the patient to tackle the tumour”.
It also illustrates how Johnson “oscillated” on the issue, an approach that exasperated his staff according to further evidence heard this week.
Johnson sets out how he wrestled with the lockdown decision in his own mind and with colleagues. He said: “I believe that it was the duty of any pragmatic and responsible leader to have such a debate both with himself and with colleagues. We were between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea.”
He added: “I would be surprised if I ever said that I had been manipulated or pushed into the first lockdown, or that I had been gamed on the numbers or anything of this effect. I have no recollection of this.
“We simply had no choices, and it was necessary at all times to weigh up the harms that any choice would cause. I was very worried about the economic harm caused by the action we took against Covid 19 and whether it would do more damage to the country than the virus itself. But I always attached the highest priority to human life and public health.”
Johnson is due to appear before the inquiry in December.
His former chief adviser Dominic Cummings likened the former prime minister’s indecision to a wobbly shopping trolley. “Pretty much everybody called him the trolley,” he told the inquiry on Tuesday.
In his written evidence Cummings referred to a press conference in early March 2020 when Johnson boasted of shaking hands with hospital staff. He said: “He went on TV and made a point of shaking hands. This is an example of why it was so hard to push him over the next few weeks. I had to worry constantly that pushing a bit too much might make him trolley back to a worse position than he was in and it was impossible to predict when this might happen.”
Cummings also claimed that Johnson asked his top medical and scientific advisers if Covid could be destroyed by blowing a “special hairdryer” up the nose. Diary notes by the chief scientist, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealed his alarm that Johnson appeared “obsessed with older people accepting their fate”.
Lee Cain, Johnson’s communications director, told the inquiry: “I think anyone that has worked with the prime minister for a period of time will become exhausted with him. Sometimes he is quite [a] challenging character to work with, just because he will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room.”
In his written evidence Cain wrote: “Another challenge was that the prime minister would occasionally oscillate between lockdown and other potential policy options (a recurring theme during the critical decision points of Covid and, to some degree, understandable given the gravity of the decisions). The prime minister worried about the impact on the economy and questioned the modelling and demographics of the fatalities around Covid.”