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Boris Johnson ‘Prioritised Views of Telegraph Over the Science’, his Director of Comms Tells Inquiry

The disgraced ex-PM also claimed “COVID is just nature’s way of dealing with old people” the official inquiry heard.

Boris Johnson got a fawning reception from the Daily Telegraph – until it was put under strain by the need for lockdowns. Photo: ifeelstock / Alamy

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Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson steered away from tougher anti-COVID measures during the pandemic – including a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the summer of 2020 – as he was afraid of a backlash from right-wing papers like the Daily Telegraph, the COVID inquiry has heard. 

Former Leave campaign head of broadcast and Johnson’s most senior communications adviser told the COVID inquiry on Tuesday that a front page of the Telegraph in May 2020 – a positive interview with Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer – frightened the then-PM.

“[He] expressed significant concern, stating our policies were causing us to lose the backing of generally supportive elements of the media,” Lee Cain’s evidence to the inquiry read. 

Extract from Lee Cain’s witness statement to the COVID inquiry on Johnson’s kowtowing to right-wing papers. 

A lawyer for the COVID inquiry, questioning Cain, noted: “In the summer of 2020…You describe a tension between some advisors, officials and ministers [who want a] slow, cautious approach and others who want to unlock much more quickly, to get back to how life had been tween before the pandemic…

“You described…the more aggressive approach of unlocking quickly was one that was favoured by the right wing of the Conservative Party and also in printed media. The Telegraph is an example you give.”

However, No 10’s own research “showed that the general public mood was actually more towards the cautious and the electorate, the opposite to the view held by your understanding of the Conservative Party,” the lawyer said. Asked if this fed into the tension No 10 faced, Cain replied simply: “Yes.”

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The reaction of the Tory right and the right-wing press “underpinned the Prime Minister’s indecision later in 2020, September, October time, about whether or not to have a circuit breaker,” the inquiry lawyer said – a point which Lee Cain agreed with. 

Cain said: “Yes, I think the Prime Minister was torn on this issue. I think if he would have been in his previous role as a journalist, he would probably be writing articles saying we should open up the beaches and…we should get back [to normality]. And I think he felt torn where the evidence on one side and public opinion and scientific evidence [was] very much [of] caution, [and being] slow.

“We were certainly going to have to do another suppression measure. So we need to have that in mind to work media opinion, and the bulk or certainly the rump of the Tory Party was pushing in a hard [unlock] direction. So I think that was probably part of the reason for the oscillation because…[lockdown] measures were very much against…his political DNA I guess.” 

About six or seven weeks into lockdown, the Prime Minister was becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of lockdowns on the economy, and the political impact it was having on the right-wing of the Conservative Party and negative coverage in the right-leaning media. 

The ‘get back to work’ and Eat Out to Help Out policies in the summer of 2020 were both trying to present a message of normality to businesses and the public – perhaps reflecting the pressure from some of the Conservative newspapers. Cain says he was critical of both of those policies – but was ignored. 

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Later in the interrogation, the lawyer for COVID Bereaved Families for Justice, Peter Weatherby KC, pointed to Johnson’s “prioritisation” of the right-wing media’s anti-lockdown views over scientific advice in May 2020. The Telegraph in particular was “robustly anti-lockdown”. 

Lee Cain replied: “He was unsure about the policy…[They] were reinforcing some of his own concerns…He previously would have been writing some of these sorts of leaders in the Telegraph before…This isn’t a criticism of the Telegraph which [shone] a light on where they thought the issues were. But I think, [for the] Prime Minister himself, this was part of [his] oscillation.” 

Weatherby pressed him: He is preferring the views of the right-wing of his party and the Telegraph over his advice. That’s what you’re saying isn’t it?”

Cain replied: “Correct.” 

‘Get COVID, Live Longer’ 

The inquiry also saw shocking first hand evidence that Boris Johnson dismissed COVID deaths and wrote “Get COVID, Live Longer” in October 2020, amid calls for a circuit-breaker lockdown.

Johnson says “Get COVID, Live Longer” in messages downplaying the virus to comms chief Lee Cain

It was backed up by former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary on 14th December 2020, noting that Boris Johnson “thinks COVID is just nature’s way of dealing with old people”. 

Extract from former CSA Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary

Other evidence given to the inquiry suggests health figures and experts knew early on in 2020 that the NHS would be overwhelmed under a ‘mitigation’ rather than suppression strategy on COVID. On 13 March it became clear the NHS would be overwhelmed by COVID. It was another 10 days before lockdown was announced in a press conference by Johnson.

Johnson’s ex director of communications also affirmed that ‘Plan A’ for the pandemic was reaching ‘herd immunity’ – the mass of the population being exposed to the virus and becoming immune. Earlier he had suggested it was only a side-effect of a ‘mitigation’ strategy that was later ditched in favour of ‘suppressing’ the virus when it became clear that hundreds of thousands would die. . 

Cain – a Brexiteer – added that the rush to leave the EU was more of a focus in Government than COVID in early 2020, following Johnson’s 2019 election commitment to ‘Get Brexit Done’. 

“COVID was the wrong crisis for this PM’s skillset,” Cain added. “He would often delay making decisions….would often change his mind on issues…With something like COVID you need quick decisions”

Cain also criticised a ‘diversity gap’ in No 10 under Johnson. At the peak of Marcus Rashford’s campaigning for free school meals in 2020, Cain says he asked a room full of 20 No 10 staffers how many had used free school meals. Not a single one put their hand up. 

During the pandemic, a small group of decision-makers would meet in the Cabinet room in Downing Street to set policies. Many would be outside the room watching in – largely women – while “predominantly white, middle aged men round the table” made the decisions, Cain said. Nothing changed when concerns were raised, the former No 10 official claimed. 

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