(Bloomberg) -- Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his UK government underestimated the threat of the Covid-19 virus early in 2020, as he conceded mistakes were made and apologized for the suffering and loss endured by Britons.

In his highly-anticipated evidence to the country’s Covid-19 inquiry on Wednesday, Johnson defended himself against criticism from former senior colleagues that he had dithered during the pandemic and pointed to the “appalling balancing act” he had faced.

His exchange with the inquiry’s barrister Hugo Keith laid bare the chaos and confusion in the first few months of 2020 as the scale of the crisis emerged. Britain entered an unprecedented nationwide lockdown on March 23 that year as the government tried to limit the virus’s spread — but this came too late, according to England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and ex-health secretary Matt Hancock.

“It would certainly be fair to say of me, the entire Whitehall establishment, scientific community included, our advisers included, that we underestimated the scale and the pace of the challenge,” Johnson said. “Inevitably, in the course of trying to handle a very, very difficult pandemic in which we had to balance appalling harms on either side of the decision, we may have made mistakes.”

Johnson’s two days of evidence follow months of testimony by a range of senior officials, scientists and ministers, some of whom have strongly criticized his leadership. Former Director of Communications Lee Cain said the pandemic was the “wrong crisis” for Johnson’s “skill set,” while former Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara said Covid rules were broken daily in Downing Street.

More than 230,000 people have died in the UK with Covid-19 on their death certificate. Johnson’s allies argue that he got the major decisions right, such as acquiring vaccines independently of the EU, and followed scientific advice. But he has been accused of failing to make decisions quickly on restrictions and allowing the virus to spread from hospitals to care homes.

Johnson appeared close to tears at one point as he described 2020 as a “tragic, tragic year.” He was himself treated in intensive care for coronavirus in April that year. 

There were strong emotions from the public gallery as several people were ordered out by the inquiry’s chair, Heather Hallett, for shouting over Johnson, as he said he was “deeply sorry for the pain and the loss and suffering of those victims and their families.”

In his evidence to the inquiry, Johnson also:

  • Conceded that around 5,000 of his WhatsApp messages from the first half of 2020 had not been handed to the inquiry, blaming technical problems.
  • Rejected accusations of a “toxic culture” in his top team, but said that “too many meetings had been too male-dominated.”
  • Said he should not have shaken the hands of Covid patients in March 2020.
  • Said there was too much focus in Whitehall on the experience of previous diseases such as Sars and Mers in the early part of 2020.
  • Rejected claims that the UK had the second worst level of excess deaths from Covid in Western Europe — saying it was mid-table — and said Britain wasn’t helped by being densely populated and having an “extremely elderly population.”
  • Said his Cabinet was “as a whole, more reluctant” to impose a lockdown than he was.
  • Said he considered firing Hancock but decided against it.

Asked by Keith about the apparent picture of “incompetence and disarray” painted by WhatsApp communications between senior government advisers, Johnson said “I would make a distinction between the type of language used and the decision-making processes of the government.”

“I would submit that any powerful and effective government has — and I think of the Thatcher government or the Blair government — has a lot of challenging and competing characters whose views about each other might not be fit to print, but do get an awful lot done,” Johnson said.

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