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Ex-aides criticise former UK PM Johnson’s COVID handling

LONDON (AFP) – British former prime minister Boris Johnson’s ex-senior advisers on Tuesday slammed his handling of the COVID pandemic, as an inquiry heard he believed claims that the virus was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

Johnson’s ex-top aide Dominic Cummings and Downing Street’s former communications chief Lee Cain, both painted a troubling picture of Johnson’s attitude and response to the health emergency as it unfolded in early 2020.

They were testifying at the COVID-19 public inquiry examining the government’s performance dealing with the virus, which led to nearly 130,000 fatalities being recorded in Britain by mid-July 2021.

The toll is one of the worst official COVID-19 death counts in the world.

Johnson and his government faced criticism for not taking the threat seriously enough in the early stages of the outbreak, and for not having enough protective equipment for frontline medical staff.

Former chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings. PHOTO: AP

In newly disclosed diary entries submitted to the inquiry, the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance noted he had “quite a bonkers set of exchanges” with the then-prime minister.

“He says his party ‘thinks the whole thing is pathetic and COVID is just nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them’,” Vallance wrote in December 2020 of a conversation with Johnson.

The “whole thing” referred to lockdowns Britain was enduring to curb the virus.

During his evidence, Cummings reiterated past descriptions of Johnson as a broken shopping “trolley” that would veer in all directions on issues, most notably COVID.

“Pretty much everyone called him a trolley, yeah,” Cummings told the inquiry, referring to former colleagues in government. Turning his fire on the government’s pandemic response more broadly, the former top aide said it featured “widespread failure” alongside “pockets of excellent teams doing excellent work within an overall dysfunctional system”.

Chaired by retired senior judge Heather Hallett, the inquiry’s first phase focused on the United Kingdom’s resilience and preparedness and is now looking at decision-making and political governance.

It is to interview Johnson and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was finance minister during the pandemic, later this year.