Boris Johnson dismissed long Covid as “b------s”, the public inquiry into the pandemic has been told.
Mr Johnson scrawled the expletive in capital letters on a briefing document at a time when the Department of Health and Social Care was issuing guidance on the illness.
On a bruising day for the former prime minister, the Covid Inquiry heard allegations that Mr Johnson was “dismissive of disaster”.
Lawyers for grieving families said it was a “remarkable and unfortunate coincidence” that he had been unable to recover his WhatsApp messages for the first four months of the pandemic.
He was also accused of a “leadership void” after failing to attend a single emergency disaster meeting for an entire month at the start of the pandemic.
Leaders accused of ‘dismissing’ crisis
Lawyers for victims’ families also questioned why Mr Johnson could not recall a meeting with Matt Hancock, the then health secretary, where he was told in January 2020 that a “very large number of people would likely die”.
Mr Johnson’s dismissal of long Covid emerged in comments made by Anthony Metzer KC, a lawyer acting for support groups including Long Covid Kids and Long Covid SOS.
Mr Metzer told the inquiry that Mr Johnson initially “denied the truth of the suffering” of long Covid patients.
“In October 2020, while the Department of Health and Social Care was publishing guidance on long Covid and called for recognition and support for people with long Covid, then prime minister Boris Johnson scrawled in capitals that long Covid was ‘b------s’,” said Mr Metzer.
Mr Johnson has submitted a witness statement to the inquiry, chaired by Baroness Hallett, in which he also appeared to be dismissive of Gulf War syndrome – something that will likely anger war veterans as well.
Mr Metzer said: “Mr Johnson has admitted in his witness statement that he didn’t believe long Covid truly existed, dismissing it as ‘Gulf War Syndrome stuff’.
“The inquiry will be concerned to probe how the former prime minister could possibly hold this view in October 2020.
“It is perhaps noticeable that the former prime minister now accepts that long Covid is a serious health condition, but does not say when he changed his mind.
“Adults and children were and still are suffering from debilitating, painful and terrifying symptoms for months and now years after infection, and yet Mr Johnson denied the truth of their suffering.
“The UK’s senior most decision-makers were dismissing, diminishing and disbelieving the very existence and risk of long Covid.”
‘Remarkable and unfortunate coincidence’
The grieving families of victims of Covid-19 were also deeply critical of what they called Mr Johnson’s “cavalier” public messaging in the weeks before the first lockdown.
The public inquiry heard that Mr Johnson’s key WhatsApp messages, dated from Jan 31 to June 7 2020, are “unrecoverable”.
Peter Weatherby KC, for Covid 19 Bereaved Families for Justice, requested that experts be drafted in by the inquiry to examine the phone.
Mr Weatherby said: “Mr Johnson claims that although he’s downloaded the phone, the WhatsApp messaging from the crucial period of Jan 31 to June 7 2020 are unrecoverable.
“A remarkable and unfortunate coincidence, we would say.
“We would urge the inquiry to commission experts to see why those messages can’t be retrieved and whether they may have been deleted.”
The failure to retrieve Mr Johnson’s WhatsApp messages follows a row in the summer over attempts by the Cabinet Office to block the inquiry from having them.
It had been claimed that the phone had been switched off for security reasons and that the former prime minister could not recall his password.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson subsequently said that experts had recovered “all relevant messages”. That will raise further questions about why lawyers are now saying the messages have not been retrieved.
Mr Weatherby said that a Cobra emergency meeting was briefed on Covid-19 on Jan 29 2020, adding: “We’ve heard Mr Johnson wasn’t at Cobra to hear this. And he wasn’t at Cobra for more than another month after, until March.
“He’ll tell us that he properly left things to others but the reality is there was a leadership void.”
He added: “It was two months into the emergency before Mr Johnson attended his first Cobra meeting, March 2, the day before he engaged in what can only be described as cavalier and incredibly unhelpful public messaging when he visited the Royal Free Hospital, telling the media: ‘I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know and I continue to shake hands.’
“It’s difficult to see his actions and media comments as nothing other than dismissive of a disaster which had been looming for two months, and was now just around the corner.”