Oliver Dowden has dismissed the claim that former prime minister Boris Johnson saw Covid as “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.
Dowden, who serves as deputy prime minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said that that account, which was revealed at the Covid inquiry yesterday, was “very partial”.
He told Sky News: “I’m quite sure that when the former prime minister gives evidence, he will give a full account of himself”, adding: “I’m not going to give commentary on one individual piece of information.”
The former PM’s purported comments emerged as Lee Cain, the former PM’s communications chief, and Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to Boris Johnson in Downing Street, both gave oral evidence to the inquiry on Tuesday.
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The specific remark that Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people” emerged from notes written by former chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance in August 2020.
He wrote: “Numbers are going up & up. PM told he has been acting early and the public are with him (but his party is not). 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. A lot of moderate people think it is a bit too much.’”.
A further note from August 2020 reads: “[Boris Johnson was] obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going. Quite bonkers set of exchanges.”
Elsewhere Johnson told Cain, his director of communications, via WhatsApp in October 2020: “Jeeez. I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on covid fatalities. The median age is 82-81 for men 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get COVID and live longer. Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4 per cent) and of those virtually all survive.
“And I no longer buy all this nhs overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate. There are max 3m in this country aged over 80.”
Dominic Cummings’s exasperation with Johnson’s early Covid approach was captured in WhatsApps sent during a 19 March 2020 meeting which included the former prime minister.
“Get in here he’s melting down”, Cummings messaging Cain, in an apparent reference to Johnson.
“I’ve literally said same thing ten f—ing times and he still won’t absorb it”, Cummings wrote in another message.
Asked this morning about Cummings’ testimony yesterday, Dowden told Sky News this morning” didn’t have a great deal of time to watch the entire proceedings” but “caught some of it”.
He said Cummings gave a “full and frank account”, but added: “I think it’s important that the inquiry takes all those bits of evidence, pieces them together, and then gets to the truth of exactly what happened, produces its conclusions, and then the government will respond fully and comprehensively.”
It was also claimed yesterday that Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, had blocked the idea of paying people on low wages to self-isolate to stop Covid spread.
Dowden defended Sunak, saying: “The current prime minister Rishi Sunak will be giving evidence to that inquiry.
“I think he’s got an awful lot to be proud of in terms of the way he conducted himself.”
The deputy PM cited the job retention scheme which saved “many millions” of jobs.
He also insisted to Times Radio that the running of government is now better than it was during the pandemic.
Asked if things were better now than they were then, the Dowden explained: “Yes, it is certainly the case that we have learnt the lessons in many ways.
“First of all I should say when I gave evidence to the inquiry I committed that the Cabinet Office would learn the lessons that the inquiry comes up with in terms of how we conduct ourselves in future.
“But we have not sat still since Covid happened.”
He added: “This is an ongoing process and of course the conclusions of this inquiry will help inform further steps.”
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