The big Covid inquiry questions Boris faces

As the great and good in Boris Johnson’s government face questions at the Covid inquiry about their handling of the pandemic, they are full of opinions about what went wrong.

Dominic Cummings pointed the finger at the former Prime Minister for his “trolley” leadership. He railed against ministers in obscene terms, branding them “useless f***pigs, morons, c***s”. Another former political aide, Lee Cain, lamented how he would “often delay making decisions”, while his senior officials raged to each other about his “mad” decision-making.

The mounting testimony will only raise expectations about what the former prime minister has to say for himself when he faces Baroness Hallett and her assembled legal eagles.

That will be only a matter of time, but we can already get a sense of the big lines of inquiry because Johnson was sent 150 questions to chew over in advance. He can also expect to appear over two days, giving him more than enough time to answer them.

Johnson has faced his fair share of questions already about his conduct over the last few years. However, his inquisitors will focus on far more than birthday parties and whether he ate some cake or not. Instead, he can brace himself for what could be his toughest public grilling yet – judging by the lines they want to go down.

Many questions seek to find out whether Johnson and his team were effectively caught napping by the pandemic, and otherwise did too little too late to stop it. For example, he is likely to be asked: “Do you consider that, during the early part of this period, ministers appreciated the seriousness of the threat from Covid-19?” They are keen to nail him down specifically, asking whether Johnson personally felt Covid-19 was “not a serious threat and akin to swine flu”.

Johnson will get ample opportunity to explain the evolution in his approach to handling Covid, tackling questions like whether his administration sought initially at least to follow the concept of “herd immunity” while shielding the vulnerable from infection.

Baroness Hallett’s inquiry is eager to follow up on eyebrow-raising claims put out by Cummings, asking whether Johnson suggested early on that he could be injected with Covid-19 live on television to “demonstrate to the public that it did not pose a threat”.

In the same spirit, he is also asked whether officials advised him to tell the public to hold “chickenpox parties” in order to spread infections in a managed way and whether the former prime minister snapped that he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than order another lockdown.

The inquiry will give Johnson a ripe opportunity to throw any of his former cabinet colleagues under the bus, judging by its interest in whether he “had any concerns regarding the performance” of any minister before the pandemic raged and whether he was particularly advised to sack Matt Hancock as Health Secretary. The former prime minister has tended to be studiously loyal to those around him, so will no doubt swerve such a temptation.

On the other hand, Johnson may find it hard to resist causing trouble for the current Prime Minister – especially when some questions cover areas like what came up in discussions with Rishi Sunak about work like the “eat out to help out” scheme.

The scheme has proven divisive, with Sunak pushing it wholeheartedly as chancellor while Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty referred to it privately as “Eat Out To Help Out the Virus”.

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Johnson may also embrace the chance for some payback against Cummings given the inquiry’s interest in whether he encountered any “significant issues” with the work of special advisers in his administration. Given his eminence among the special advisers, Cummings will be foremost in his mind when considering his answer.

The inquiry’s ultimate purpose, as its lawyers make clear, is to find answers so the errors seen in response to Covid-19 are never repeated again. Johnson has already paid the price politically in the aftermath of the pandemic. However tough his eventual appearance before the inquiry may be, he can console himself in the fact that nothing will change his place in the history books.

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