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Former U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended his efforts to balance the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 as he gave a second day of testimony Thursday to Britain’s public inquiry into the government’s response to the pandemic.
Johnson was grilled about his government’s “Eat Out to Help Out” program, which supported the hospitality industry by subsidizing restaurant meals, and delays in imposing a second national lockdown as infection rates began to rise toward the end of 2020.
Leading scientists have testified that they weren’t part of the discussions on the program and that it was obvious it would increase transmission risks. Johnson said he had no reason to question the restaurant initiative.
“I must emphasize, it was not at the time presented to me as something that would add to the budget of risk,” he said.
Johnson, who is testifying under oath, admitted Wednesday that he made mistakes in grasping the extent of the pandemic and that his advisers failed to sound a “loud enough klaxon of alarm” about the virus.
His remarks came after weeks of testimony by other ministers, including former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who said they sought to raise the alarm inside the government. Hancock argued that thousands of lives could have been saved by putting the country under a lockdown a few weeks earlier than the eventual date of March 23, 2020.
The United Kingdom went on to have one of Europe’s longest and strictest lockdowns, as well as one of the continent’s highest COVID-19 death tolls, with the virus recorded as a cause of death for more than 232,000 people.
The inquiry is designed to uncover the lessons of COVID-19 to help officials better respond to future pandemics, but its revelations could further tarnish Johnson’s battered reputation.
Johnson was celebrated for delivering a landslide victory for his Conservative Party in 2019 but forced to resign as prime minister last year following a series of scandals, including revelations about boozy parties at his Downing Street offices while the country was locked down during the pandemic.