Boris Johnson has been ordered to offer a detailed explanation as to what was going on at the top of Government during the Covid-19 pandemic, from initial responses to the emerging virus to why he chose to conduct personal meetings after asking people to stay at home.
Amid the ongoing row over what the Cabinet Office are willing to send over to senior judge Baroness Heather Hallett, who is chairing the Covid-19 inquiry, an extensive list of some 150 questions has been published. These points offer a first insight into what details Baroness Hallett and her team will be pouring over, and where Mr Johnson could face some difficult questions.
Here’s what we have learned from some of the key queries:
“What was the role and status of Special Advisers and other external advisers within No 10 and the Cabinet Office? Were they integrated effectively into core decision making structures? Did they work cohesively with the permanent Civil Service? Did any significant issues arise in relation to their role or their use?”
Baroness Hallett is touching on an interesting issue here with her questions about the role of Special Advisors, or Spads as they are commonly known in Westminster. These are unelected and political appointments made by ministers and there is no clear description of what their job involves. Essentially, they are there to assist, advise and brief on behalf of the ministers they work for. Sometimes, they come under fire for having too much influence – this was a criticism levied at former No10 Spad Dominic Cummings who played a central role in much of the Government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems that, through her line of questioning here, Baroness Hallett is probing as to whether people in these Spad roles were actually working together in the interests of government or, instead, were the source of tensions and dysfunction.
“Between January and July 2020 did you receive advice from the then Cabinet Secretary that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock MP, should be removed from his position? If so, why?“
In the wake of the pandemic former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has come under intense scrutiny for how he handled his role and responsibilities – not least because he was forced to resign due to breaking his own lockdown rules. Mr Cummings has, in particular, been highly critical of him and claimed Mr Johnson had considered sacking Mr Hancock and replacing him with a another minister. Baroness Hallett is asking Mr Johnson here whether he did genuinely consider sacking his Health Secretary earlier than he eventually did and if so, why he did not go ahead with it? It will be interesting to see how much Mr Johnson – who is generally loyal to his colleagues – blames Mr Hancock for the mistakes made.
“Notwithstanding that the DHSC [Department for Health and Social Care] was the lead government department, why did you not attend any COBR meetings in relation to Covid-19 prior to 2 March 2020, given the seriousness of the emergency? Were you advised or requested to attend any of the previous meetings on 24 January, 29 January, 4 February, 12 February, and 18 February? What effect, if any, do you consider your non-attendance at those meetings had on the extent to which Covid-19 was viewed as a serious threat?“
Baroness Hallett has asked Mr Johnson about his first awareness of the spread of the illness that would later be named Covid-19 and when he initially became concerned that it would be a significant issue. As reference in the question above, she is also clearly keen to understand why Mr Johnson did not deem it important enough for him to attend the meetings of the emergency Cobr committee. Mr Johnson has since come under criticism for not going to these meetings, with some suggesting it displayed a lack of willingness to take the pandemic seriously at the early stages when considerable interventions could have been made to change its course.
Looking back, do you consider that, during the early part of this period, Ministers appreciated the seriousness of the threat from Covid-19?
Baroness Hallett also asked whether the threat of Covid was taken seriously by government as whole. Arguably, it would probably be fair to say that very few people took the initial threat of Covid-19 as seriously as it warranted given the lack of understanding about the virus and threat of pandemics, but part of the focus of the inquiry is to learn lessons for the future should this threat emerge again. As a result, she clearly believes it is important for ministers and leaders to honestly reflect on what decisions were correct and what were, in hindsight, mistakes.
“Why did you attend a personal/social meeting on the evening of 19 March, after you had called on the UK on 16 March to stop all non-essential contact with others?“
This question is in relation to a meeting Mr Johnson had with Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev on 19 March, shortly before the tycoon was nominated for a peerage. This meeting took place three days after telling people to stop non-essential contact and the same day that Mr Johnson gave a statement to the nation asking people to make this sacrifice in order to beat the virus and save lives. Four days after this meeting, he announced the police would be enforcing the Covid rules – turning them from guidance into laws. The partygate scandal and the numerous events referenced in that is not included in these questions from Baroness Hallett, but her mention of this particular social engagement suggests Mr Johnson has more questions to answer about this.
“Please explain the concept of ‘herd immunity’ and the extent to which seeking ‘herd immunity’ formed part of the government’s strategy for preventing a 2nd wave following the lifting of social restrictions. To what extent did the government consider that it would be possible to shield the vulnerable from severe infection as part of such a strategy?“
The idea that the government was initially going to pursue a policy of herd immunity – which would have seen as many people catch it as possible to build up resilience to the virus – has been a controversial point because, considering what we know now about Covid, such a method would have led to even higher numbers of deaths and serious illnesses. Here, Baroness Hallett is clearly trying to get a picture of whether this consideration was based on serious advice or speculation. She also asked if herd immunity was recommended by the SAGE group of scientists or discussed between Mr Johnson and then-Italian leader Giuseppe Conte, and she questioned if the plan for herd immunity was due to the absence of a mass testing programme in the early days of the pandemic.
“Please confirm whether in March 2020 (or around that period), you suggested to senior civil servants and advisors that you be injected with Covid-19 on television to demonstrate to the public that it did not pose a threat? Please provide details of when any such conversation took place and the circumstances in which it was had?“
When Mr Cummings gave evidence to MPs he claimed Mr Johnson offered to be injected with Covid on television to prove that it was not something the public should be afraid of. There has not been any confirmation as to whether this indeed true or not and such a striking account, again, suggests a level of naivety from Mr Johnson about the seriousness of the virus. In another question, she askes if Mr Johnson thought the virus was the same as general flu, or swine flu. These are also comments he is reported to have made, which are considered by some to be indicative of a wider issue in the Government’s response to the pandemic.
“Did the then Cabinet Secretary, Lord Sedwill, on 12 March 2020 (or around that period), advise you to inform the public to hold “chickenpox parties” in order to spread infections of Covid-19? What was your response to any such advice?“
This is again a reference to a possible lack of understanding about the virus among those at the top of government. But what this question reveals is a suspicion around the slightly haphazard approach to strategy and advice relating to the official guidance. In a sense, Baroness Hallett is asking here whether a senior civil servant was making suggestions as to what medical advice the British public should be given. This leads to the question of why those in government, who were not the senior scientists and medical officials, would make such a suggestion and whether that would have been taken seriously by the PM.
“What advice did you receive in relation to the need to free up beds in hospitals by way of the discharge of patients to care homes? To what extent were you advised on the UK Government’s March Discharge Policy?“
The decision to discharge elderly patients from hospital into care homes, to free up hospital beds, has been one that has come to haunt the government and many families in the country. We know now that this inadvertantly led to the virus spreading in care homes where some of the most vulnerable members of the population were residing. There has been little accountability for that decision, and here Baroness Hallett is clearly tryin to pin down how the decision was made and by whom. She goes on to ask about what information the PM had about infections in care homes, and whether people were being tested before being discharged. She also specifically asks if Mr Hancock provided an assurance that the testing would be in place prior to patients being discharged.
Bodies pile high
“In or around Autumn 2020, did you state that you would rather “let the bodies pile high” than order another lockdown, or words to that effect? If so, please set out the circumstances in which you made these comments.“
These comments were widely reported at the time but denied by Mr Johnson himself. What will be interesting in his response to this is the circumstances Baroness Hallett has requested – it may allow the former PM to offer some context as to any comments made by him that he feels have been misconstrued.
“Please explain what impact, if any, you consider alleged breaches of social restriction and lockdown rules by Ministers, officials and advisers, and the associated public debate at that time, had on public confidence and the maintenance of observance of those rules by the public?“
There is little reference to the well-documented lockdown-breaking going on in No10. But here, Baroness Hallett is asking the PM to reflect on a different side to the story. In the past, he has been grilled on the facts: were the rules broken, and why. Now, he is being asked to consider the wider impact of this on public trust in government throughout the later months of the pandemic and, of course, what that could mean for future pandemics. Essentially, has this behaviour made it impossible for a government in the near future to enforce any kind of pandemic restrictions?
“It is understood that between 18 to 23 September 2020 you had a number of meetings with editors of various newspapers. What was the purpose of these meetings? To what extent did these meetings involve any discussions about a further lockdown? To what extent did any such discussions influence your decision about whether or not to impose a further lockdown?“
This is a particularly interesting question from Baroness Hallett as she is suggesting that meetings with various newspaper editors – who may have had a political agenda – could have influenced the eventual decision about when the autumn lockdown was imposed. If Mr Johnson was coming under pressure from his political backers to go one way or another it may have compromised the judgement as to what was the correct strategy.