Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has attempted to apologize for the thousands of lives lost to Covid-19 while he was in power, but was interrupted by protesters as he tried to do so.
Johnson was giving evidence on Wednesday morning at the United Kingdom’s public Covid inquiry, which the former leader set up in May 2021.
During his opening statement, Johnson was heckled by demonstrators believed to be from a group of families who lost loved ones during the pandemic.
Four people stood up when Johnson began to say he was sorry, holding signs reading “the dead can’t hear your apologies,” the UK’s PA Media news agency reported. The protesters were then ejected from the hearing by the inquiry chair Heather Hallet.
One of them, 59-year-old Kathryn Butcher, later told the agency: “We didn’t want his apology. When he tried to apologize we stood up. We didn’t block anybody. We were told to sit down.”
Butcher, who is from London, told PA Media that her 56-year-old sister-in-law, Myrna Saunders, died from Covid-19 in March 2020, adding that Johnson saw the demonstrators’ signs during the protest.
More than 200,000 people were killed by the coronavirus during the pandemic in the UK, one of the highest death tolls in Europe, and Johnson’s government was widely criticized for its response.
“I understand the feelings of these victims and their families, and I am deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and suffering of those victims and their families,” Johnson said.
“I do hope that this inquiry will help to get the answers to the very difficult questions that those victims in those families are rightly asking,” the former prime minister continued in his opening remarks.
Despite opening with an apology, Johnson would not be drawn on specific errors that he considered himself or his government to have made.
He went on to defend his actions during the pandemic by saying: “I think we were doing our best at the time, given what we knew, given the information I had available to me at the time.” He continued: “Were there things that we should have done differently? Unquestionably.”
Johnson’s conduct during this period has been under intense scrutiny due to the evidence given by others to the inquiry, suggesting that his government permitted a culture that prohibited the right decisions being made.
The inquiry is currently examining how Johnson and his senior team reached decisions such as implementing lockdowns and why specific choices were taken at specific times. Johnson’s evidence to the inquiry has already attracted negative headlines as WhatsApp messages requested from his personal phone could not be given to the inquiry due to what he claims is a technical issue.
Some of Johnson’s most senior former aides have suggested that Johnson was “bamboozled” by the science as it was presented to him, while his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been vocally critical of Johnson’s management style, comparing him to an out-of-control shopping trolley.
When asked if he thought it was unusual for advisers and officials to be as critical of a leader as they were of Johnson during the pandemic – including on the question of his own competence – the former PM replied: “No I think this is wholly to be expected”
While still in office, Johnson became the first sitting prime minister to receive a fine from the police, for breaking his own Covid lockdown rules. The “Partygate” scandal, during which members of his team – and the then-prime minister himself – attended events that breached the national Covid rules played a large part in Johnson losing the support of his governing Conservative Party and ending his time in office.
CNN’s Jessie Gretener contributed to this report.