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Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson on his way to the inquiry: Did he miss important meetings because he preferred to write a biography of Shakespeare?

Photo: Jordan Pettitt / dpa

The "Partygate" affair around illegal parties in Downing Street, a late first lockdown, long debates about closed pubs: the handling of the corona pandemic in Great Britain is souring many Britons. Now the prime minister responsible at the time, Boris Johnson, has to face a commission of inquiry.

In the first hearing, Johnson admitted small mistakes. He and his government had "done our best in our time" in Britain, Johnson said, depending on what science knew about the virus at the time. However, "a lot went wrong" in the process. In principle, however, he denied any major omissions.

The public Covid Inquiry, chaired by former judge Heather Hallett, is currently investigating whether Britain was sufficiently prepared for the pandemic. Johnson himself had launched the round when he was still prime minister. In the United Kingdom, about 227,000 people died of Corona, according to death certificates. Despite the smaller population, this is significantly more than in Germany. Great Britain was one of the hardest-hit countries in the world.

Johnson has been summoned to a hearing on Wednesday and Thursday about his role during the pandemic. Right at the beginning of the questioning, he apologized to the relatives of Covid-19 victims. "I am deeply sorry for the pain, loss and suffering of these victims and their families," Johnson told the panel.

Against Covid with the hair dryer?

Before Johnson, many former companions of his government had already testified, including Johnson's ex-chief adviser Dominic Cummings. Few spoke positively about Johnson's leadership style. He had hardly understood the scientific facts, made derogatory remarks about pandemic victims in WhatsApp chats and led his cabinet with a toxic style. Former top civil servant Helen MacNamara called the atmosphere under Johnson sexist, toxic and more horrific than she had ever experienced. Because of his "macho, self-confident" nature, the government team was extremely stubborn at the beginning of the pandemic.

Many doubted Johnson's competence: Why did he hesitate with the first lockdown? Did he miss important sessions because he preferred to write a biography of Shakespeare? How did the "Partygate" affair come about? And did Johnson even understand what his scientists were telling him at the time? Allegedly, he once seriously asked whether the coronavirus could not be stopped by blowing one's nose with a special hair dryer.

Johnson tried to dodge many critical questions at the hearing. The work of the government was difficult, but it was done to the best of our ability. In response to the accusation that Downing Street had led toxically, Johnson admitted that his cabinet could certainly have done with a "better gender ratio". Commenting on the WhatsApp chats that have become known, the ex-prime minister said that in the end it was important to distinguish between what was written in the chats and how his government actually acted.

"Useless fucking pigs"

Cummings, in particular, repeatedly scolded female employees like MacNamara in vulgar tones in chat messages, once calling cabinet members "useless fucking pigs" and repeatedly calling for the dismissal of ministers or civil servants.

But some of Johnson's comments are also likely to raise questions. In autumn 2020, for example, the then prime minister is said to have said that he would rather "let the corpses pile up" than announce a new lockdown – which he did soon after. According to ex-adviser Vallance, Johnson said on another occasion, "Corona is nature's way of dealing with old people." They should accept their fate.

In order to avoid protesting relatives of the deceased, Johnson had already appeared in the dark early in the morning, three hours before the start of the questioning. The Commission can examine witnesses under oath and request documents, but cannot make judgments. In the course of reviewing the government's response to the pandemic, the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister at the time, is also to be questioned before the end of this year.