By Andrew MacAskill and Muvija M
LONDON (Reuters) -British former prime minister Boris Johnson gave his most explicit apology for his handling of the coronavirus crisis on Wednesday, saying his government had been too complacent and “vastly underestimated” the risks posed by the virus.
In an appearance before an official inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic, Johnson said he took responsibility for all decisions made and he understood the public’s anger after the inquiry heard of government incompetence, backstabbing and misogyny as it battled the biggest health crisis in decades.
Johnson said COVID-19 had first appeared as a “cloud on the horizon” and not the “typhoon” that went on to kill more than 230,000 people in Britain and infect many millions more.
Initially, Johnson said he did not believe the forecasts of fatalities because previous health scares, such as the swine flu pandemic and mad cow disease, ended up with much lower death tolls than first expected.
But Johnson admitted only reading the minutes of the government’s key scientific advisory group on a couple of occasions despite the conclusions leading to the biggest restrictions on freedoms in Britain since World War Two.
“Can I say that I understand the feelings of the victims and their families, and I am deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering,” he said at the start of two days of testimony.
Johnson, prime minister for three years between 2019 and 2022, resigned in disgrace after a series of scandals including reports that he, and other officials, had been present at alcohol-fuelled gatherings in Downing Street during 2020 and 2021 when most people in Britain were forced to stay at home.
The inquiry has already heard damaging testimony about his reluctance to lock down, and how he was confused by the science of the virus, which almost killed him.
Johnson was said to have asked at one point if blowing a hair-dryer up his nose could kill COVID and suggested he should be injected with it on live TV. He admitted during his evidence being “bewildered” by data showing the health service could be overwhelmed.
The inquiry gave Johnson a platform to map out his own history of the crisis. Where sometimes he was combative, on another occasion he fought back tears when he described 2020 as a “tragic year”.
Britain had been an outlier in Europe at the start of the pandemic, when large public events remained open despite nightly news programmes showing chaotic scenes in Italian hospitals.
The former prime minister faced repeated questions about whether he waited too long to impose a lockdown at the start of 2020 and if that resulted in Britain ending up with one of the world’s highest death tolls from the pandemic.
Denying he was indecisive, Johnson said there were constant, conflicting arguments between ministers and officials about how to respond and senior ministers were more reluctant than he was to impose restrictions on the public’s movements.
Johnson arrived at the inquiry more than three hours before the hearing began, avoiding the families of some of those who died from COVID-19, who had wanted to confront him.
The start of the session was also disrupted by protesters.
Aamer Anwar, the solicitor representing some bereaved COVID families, said Johnson oversaw “a deadly culture of impunity, incompetence” and treated people like “toxic waste”.
The inquiry heard evidence from former advisers that Johnson wanted to let the virus spread rather than order another lockdown and he once replied “let the bodies pile high”.
Johnson said abusive messages between officials were sometimes “creatively useful”. But he admitted his team would have worked better if it had more women.
In one messages shown to the inquiry, Cummings, who was then Johnson’s most senior official, complained in profanity-laden messages that he was “dodging stilettos” from a female colleague and wanted to “handcuff her and escort her” from Downing Street.
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Sarah Young and Michael Holden; Editing by Kate Holton, Angus MacSwan, Christina Fincher, Alexandra Hudson)