Boris Johnson asked why damage was being inflicted on the economy during the pandemic “for people who will die anyway soon” in a meeting with Rishi Sunak, the Covid inquiry was told on Monday.
At the start of what is set to be a bruising week for the former prime minister, with former political aides and senior civil servants to give evidence on his government’s handling of the pandemic, the diary of a former private secretary revealed the damaging remarks made in March 2020.
The note was from a meeting during which Johnson was believed to have said: “We’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large ppl [taken to mean large numbers of people] who will die, why are we destroying economy for people who will die anyway soon.”
Imran Shafi, the official who wrote the memo, told the inquiry he thought it was Johnson who made the comments. It came after a series of diary entries and WhatsApp messages suggested the low regard in which the former Tory leader was held by senior advisers.
Whitehall’s highest ranking civil servant, Simon Case, complained that Johnson “cannot lead” and wanted to “let it rip” when it came crucial choices over how the UK should handle Covid-19, the UK inquiry into the pandemic heard.
The WhatsApp message was sent to Dominic Cummings, at the time Johnson’s chief adviser, by the cabinet secretary, who confided in the midst of an oscillating government response to the pandemic: “I am at the end of my tether.”
“He changes strategic direction every day (Monday we were all about fear of virus returning as per Europe, March etc – today we’re in ‘let it rip’ mode cos [sic] the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower etc.)” added Case, who is due to appear as a witness at the Inquiry at a later date.
Martin Reynolds, who served as Johnson’s principal private secretary at No 10, was earlier challenged over why he had turned on the disappearing messages function on a WhatsApp group, which included Johnson and his most senior aides, weeks before the then prime minister announced that a Covid-19 inquiry would take place.
Reynolds told Hugo Keith KC, the inquiry’s lead lawyer, that he did not believe he had done so in April 2021 to prevent the inquiry from seeing the messages in a WhatsApp group named “PM Updates”, adding: “It could for example, have been because I was worried about someone screen shooting or using some of the exchanges and leaking them.”
The inquiry was also told of another WhatsApp message sent by Case, to Reynolds, in which the former had claimed that Johnson was “mad” if he did not think his WhatsApp messages would become public during the Covid inquiry.
The appearance by Reynolds came as the inquiry reached a week of hugely significant and potentially damning testimony that could shine a deeply unforgiving light on the inner workings of Johnson’s government, with Cummings and the former No 10 communications chief, Lee Cain, due to give evidence this week.
Reynolds, who was nicknamed “Party Marty” after it emerged he had invited more than 100 Downing Street staff to a “bring your own booze” event during the first lockdown, told the inquiry that he wished to “apologise unreservedly to all the families of all those who suffered during Covid for all the distress caused”.
The event resulted in a number of people being fined and Reynolds was told by Keith he was not going to be asked if he himself had received a fixed-penalty notice.
But he was challenged by the barrister for suggesting that he did not believe it had a major impact on the public during the pandemic, given details of the event emerged in the media much later, saying: “It actually broke into the news about 15 months later.”
Keith told him: “Mr Reynolds, the news broke of these goings on in Downing Street in December 2021. Whilst we were still in the middle of the pandemic, were we not?”
After Monday’s hearing, trade unions slammed the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic after another WhatsApp message, written by Case, stated that the then education minister, Gavin Williamson, and Johnson rejected calls for masks in schools because they were in “no surrender mode towards unions”.
Against the backdrop of a debate about the wearing of face coverings in schools during the pandemic, Case had written in a WhatsApp message that it had been recommended to Johnson that “permissive guidance” be created around masks because it was going to become a “drama”.
But he added: “Because at that stage it was Unions pressing for masks (no science back-up), Gavin was in a ‘no surrender’ mode and didn’t want to give an inch to the unions”.
In a list of “conclusions”, he wrote: “At every turn PM backs bullshit ‘no surrender’ ideas frm Hancock/Williamson/Shapps and then totally regrets it later”.
The TUC said in a statement on Monday: “In a time of national crisis the Conservatives put politics before people. Education leaders rightly raised concerns about the need to protect staff and children in schools. But these warnings were dismissed out of hand due to vindictiveness towards unions.”
Other evidence shed new light on and raised questions about the closeness between Johnson and Evgeny Lebedev, who was controversially given a life peerage in 2020.
Records read out showed he met with the Russian newspaper proprietor and also telephoned him at the height of what counsel for the inquiry described as a 10-day “crisis” about a change of strategy in the run-up to the first lockdown.
“Did you not know [to] ask him why are you spending time on this prime minister? We have got rather more urgent matters to deal with,” Keith asked Reynolds, who replied: “I cannot recall … I may have said ‘are you sure you want to do this?’”
The contacts included a phone call on 18 March 2020 and a 41-minute meeting the day after. This was at a time after, Labour has claimed, the House of Lords Appointment Committee had advised the PM against giving Lebedev the honour.