Former UK PM Johnson denies he wanted to let COVID ‘rip’

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) -Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Britain’s COVID inquiry on Thursday that any suggestion he wanted to allow the virus to “let rip” was “rubbish” and “completely wrong”.

Johnson, prime minister between 2019 and 2022, faced a second day of questioning which examined the weeks before the country’s second national lockdown in November 2020.

Asked whether he had wanted to allow the virus to “let rip”, and about suggestions that he believed older people had reached their time, Johnson said: “No, no, no, this is all rubbish”.

The inquiry has heard evidence from former advisers that Johnson, fearing the impact on the economy, had once replied “let the bodies pile high” as he wanted to let the virus spread rather than order another lockdown.

He dismissed that evidence as “accounts…culled from people’s jottings” and said Britain went into a second lockdown as soon as the disease picked up again.

“The implication that you’re trying to draw from those conversations is completely wrong,” he said. “My position was that we had to save human life at all ages and that was the objective of the strategy, and by the way, that is what we did.”

Coronavirus killed more than 230,000 people in Britain and infected many millions more.

Johnson resigned in disgrace after a series of scandals including reports that he, and other officials, engaged in alcohol-fuelled gatherings in Downing Street in 2020 and 2021, when most Britons had to stay at home.

Asked about what has become known as the “partygate” scandal, he said there had been some mischaracterisation of events at No.10, but added that he was sorry.

“I apologise for the offence that has been caused and if I had my time again of course I’d have done things differently,” he said.

The inquiry has heard damaging testimony about a toxic culture in Downing Street during the pandemic, Johnson’s reluctance to lock down, and how he was confused by the science of the virus.

In autumn 2020, he said the phrase “let it rip” was in common parlance.

His job, he said, was to challenge the consensus in meetings and ask questions of scientists recommending a full lockdown instead of a policy of shielding vulnerable people and allowing the virus to “rip” among the rest of the population.

“It does not do justice to what we did, our thoughts, our feelings, my thoughts, my feelings, to say that we were remotely reconciled to fatalities across the country or that I believed that it was acceptable to let it rip,” he said.

On Wednesday, he apologised at the inquiry for his handling of the crisis, saying his government had initially been too complacent and “vastly underestimated” the risks.

(Reporting by Sarah Young and William Schomberg, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan)