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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jamie Grierson

Brexit prioritised over tackling Covid at start of pandemic, says ex-minister

Lord Bethell
Lord Bethell was appointed a health minister in March 2020, the month the UK went into its first lockdown. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Brexit was prioritised over tackling Covid-19 in the early days of the outbreak, a former health minister has said, as the inquiry into the UK response to the pandemic gathers pace.

Lord Bethell, who was appointed a health minister in March 2020, the month the UK went into its first lockdown, said Boris Johnson did “everything he could” to avoid focusing on the pandemic.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Conservative peer said: “I was aware that during the early days of the pandemic, it was extremely difficult to get any response from Downing Street, and we could see this train coming down the tracks at us.”

“It was put to us there were other priorities including Brexit. I personally found that completely unexplainable and baffling,” he said.

“I know [Boris Johnson] found the prospect of a pandemic personally very difficult to focus on, it was bad news of a kind he doesn’t like to respond to, and he did everything he could to try to avoid the subject,” he said.

Bethell’s comments come before the appearance of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief adviser, at the Covid-19 inquiry on Tuesday.

Lee Cain, the former No 10 director of communications who left government a day before Cummings, will also appear.

Bethell told the Today programme the culture in Downing Street at the time was “chaotic”, describing it as an “office culture that had gone badly wrong, where bullying and chaotic behaviours had become normalised”.

The peer said after backing Johnson for prime minister, he felt “very let down [that] things went as badly as they did”.

“I was aware of this toxic environment in Downing Street, he said, adding frequent “U-turning hampered our efforts tremendously”.

This week at the inquiry is expected to be a bruising one for the former prime minister. On Monday, the diary of a former private secretary submitted to the inquiry suggested he had asked why damage was being inflicted on the economy during the pandemic “for people who will die anyway soon”.

Imran Shafi, the official who wrote the memo, told the inquiry he thought it was Johnson who made the comments. It came after a series of diary entries and WhatsApp messages suggested the low regard in which the former Tory leader was held by senior advisers.

Whitehall’s highest-ranking civil servant, Simon Case, complained that Johnson “cannot lead” and wanted to “let it rip” when it came to crucial choices over how the UK should handle Covid-19, the UK inquiry into the pandemic heard.

The WhatsApp message was sent to Dominic Cummings, at the time Johnson’s chief adviser, by the cabinet secretary, who confided in the midst of an oscillating government response to the pandemic: “I am at the end of my tether.”

“He changes strategic direction every day (Monday we were all about fear of virus returning as per Europe, March etc – today we’re in ‘let it rip’ mode cos [sic] the UK is pathetic, needs a cold shower etc.)” added Case, who is due to appear as a witness at the inquiry at a later date.

Extracts from the notebook of Sir Patrick Vallance meanwhile showed the chief scientific adviser considered the former prime minister to be “weak and indecisive”.

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