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Former PM Boris Johnson testifies over Britain's botched COVID-19 response

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Britain had one of the worst COVID-19 death tolls in Europe. The prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson, was himself hospitalized in intensive care. But after he recovered, he threw boozy parties at 10 Downing Street, in violation of his own government's lockdown rules, and then lied about it to Parliament. The scandal, known as Partygate, led Johnson to resign from parliament earlier this year. He's been testifying today before a public inquiry into his government's botched COVID response, and he had this to say to the British public.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BORIS JOHNSON: I am deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and the suffering.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Lauren Frayer has the story.

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JOHNSON: From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: That's then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing a lockdown in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. After that, he introduced lockdown tiers and bubbles. Your household could form a bubble with others, but not too many and not indoors and not all the time. It was confusing. British comedian Matt Lucas did a video impersonation of the prime minister, which went viral.

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MATT LUCAS: (Impersonating Boris Johnson) So we are saying, don't go to work. Go to work. Don't take public transport. Go to work. Don't go to work. Stay indoors. Go outside. Don't go outside.

FRAYER: That was a spoof, but it evoked the contradictory public health messages coming out of the Johnson government.

NAOMI FULOP: I would scream at the TV, you know, for goodness sake, and I didn't quite use that language.

FRAYER: Naomi Fulop recalls being frustrated and scared for her 94-year-old mother, who caught the virus and then died in early 2021.

FULOP: That is still very, very painful - that we weren't with her when she died. She died alone, as so many thousands of people did.

FRAYER: Fulop's family followed the rules, and they had a funeral on Zoom rather than in person. While in Downing Street...

FULOP: There had been a whole series of parties when the rest of us were, you know, isolating at home, not visiting our loved ones. And so - what? - it's beyond fury, what I feel about that.

FRAYER: Now, Johnson has always been defiant about this, even as photos and videos of those parties emerged and he was fined by police and his aides resigned. Johnson repeatedly told Parliament that these were just work meetings...

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JOHNSON: There was no party, and that...

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: ...And that no COVID rules were broken, and that is what...

FRAYER: ...Though the laughter and groans there suggest few of his fellow lawmakers even believed him. Today, Johnson struck a different tone, reflecting on the year 2020...

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JOHNSON: That whole year - that whole tragic, tragic year (crying)...

FRAYER: ...And choking up at one point. He admitted some mistakes but said he and his advisers did their best. His appearance comes after weeks of damning testimony from lower-level officials, describing a toxic work culture, indecision and chaos under Johnson.

HANNAH WHITE: I think Boris Johnson certainly will be thinking to his legacy.

FRAYER: Hannah White directs a nonpartisan think tank in London. She says Johnson's demeanor today was chastened. He is not on trial, but he is under oath, and the inquiry will publish lessons learned for posterity. Johnson resigned in disgrace, but he still casts a shadow over his Conservative Party as it heads into elections next year.

WHITE: They think he's relatable. He is charismatic. But can we ever afford to have somebody leading the country who doesn't have the skill set to lead through times of difficulty? We can never predict when those might happen.

FRAYER: It's a question many Britons may be asking as they relive painful memories from the pandemic years.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURREN$Y, STATIK SELEKTAH, AND TERMANOLOGY SONG, "GRAN TURISMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.