Boris Johnson apologises for calling long Covid ‘b*******’ and comparing poorly-understood condition to Gulf War syndrome

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Boris Johnson today apologised for dismissing long Covid as being ‘b*******’ and comparing the poorly-understood illness with Gulf War Syndrome.

During an eye-opening grilling at the Covid Inquiry, the ex-Prime Minister said he regretted using that language and argued he was just trying to ‘get to the truth’ of what the condition was.

Mr Johnson’s thoughts were scribbled on an October 2020 document describing symptoms of the condition.

Asked about the memo, he said: ‘The words that I scribbled in the margins of submissions about long Covid have obviously been now publicised and I’m sure that they have caused hurt and offence to the huge numbers of people who do indeed suffer from that syndrome.

‘I regret very much using that language and I should have thought about the possibility of future publication.’

Boris Johnson laid out the things he thought could have been done differently as he acknowledged that there were inevitably missteps at the start of the pandemic

Boris Johnson wrote in the margins of his notes that long Covid was 'b*******' and compared the poorly-understood illness with Gulf War Syndrome

Boris Johnson wrote in the margins of his notes that long Covid was ‘b*******’ and compared the poorly-understood illness with Gulf War Syndrome

He said he was trying to ‘get to the truth of the matter’ of what the syndrome was.

Mr Johnson told the inquiry that he only got a ‘proper’ paper on long Covid in the summer of 2021.

Pushing back, lead counsel Hugo Keith KC claimed Mr Johnson ‘continued to make disparaging references’ in February 2021, and again in June 2021.

A WhatsApp message previously shown to the Inquiry, dated February 2021, stated that Mr Johnson wrote: ‘Do we really believe in long Covid? Why can’t we hedge it more? I bet it’s complete Gulf War Syndrome stuff.’

The term refers to unexplained illness complained of by hundreds of thousands of US and UK veterans of the 1991 Gulf War, who were left battling fatigue, memory problems and chronic pain. 

Key points in Boris Johnson’s Covid evidence 

  • Four people left the hearing after standing up as Mr Johnson’s evidence began, holding up signs that read: ‘The Dead can’t hear your apologies.’ 
  • Mr Johnson said there were ‘strong arguments against going to early’ with the initial lockdown;
  • He described Covid in January 2020 as being ‘like a cloud on the horizon no bigger than a man’s hand’, saying no-one knew if it would turn into a ‘typhoon’; 
  • Mr Johnson said at that point there was not enough ‘credence’ given to the ‘mathematical implications’ of forecasts, highlighting that previous threats such as SARS and BSE had not triggered the same chaos; 
  • The ex-PM denied taking a ‘holiday’ over February half-term in 2020, saying he was ‘working throughout the period’ and had called both Xi Jinping of China and President Trump; 
  • Mr Johnson admitted he had been wrong to boast in March 2020 about shaking hands with ‘everybody’ on a visit to the Royal Free Hospital in London. 
  • He denied that foul-mouthed WhatsApps showed his team were deeply split and played down internal No10 pressure from Dominic Cummings to sack then-health secretary Matt Hancock, saying that was part of normal cut and thrust in Westminster;
  • Mr Johnson dismissed Covid era messages showing Cabinet Secretary Simon Case had swiped that he had ‘never seen a group of people less suited’ for running the country, saying WhatsApps tended to be ‘pejorative and hyperbolical’;
  • He appeared to blame the aggressive tone of private exchanges on ‘male-dominated’ meetings, saying there was better ‘gender balance’ in his office as London Mayor; 
  • Mr Johnson defended no cracking down on borders in the early phases, saying that scientists did not believe it would work and evidence from other countries suggested they had been right; 
  • When the virus started surging again in Autumn 2020 Mr Johnson said there was an ‘appalling problem’ over whether to lock down, saying they were concerned about doing the same thing ‘over and over again’;  
  • The ex-PM denied that the Cabinet was shut out of decisions because it was ‘seen by No10 as not being a serious place for serious discussion’; 
  • Mr Johnson said the Cabinet was generally ‘more reluctant’ to impose lockdown restrictions than he was;  
  • About 5,000 WhatsApp messages on Mr Johnson’s phone from January 30, 2020 to June 2020 were unavailable to the inquiry. The former premier said he ‘didn’t know the exact reason’ but insisted there had been a technical failure and denied deleting anything.

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Chemical warfare agents, such as sarin, and post-traumatic stress disorder are possible causes, experts believe.

Mr Johnson told the hearing: ‘It’s no disrespect to long Covid patients and I saw in the victim impact videos are some of the victims of long Covid, I can imagine what a dreadful thing is.

‘But there are also, with Gulf War syndrome, many people who have terrible symptoms for a very long time.

‘There are also people who think they may be suffering, I think this is the now accepted, from something associated with the Gulf War, but who are not in fact suffering from something associated with the Gulf War.

‘So what I was trying to say was “where is the, where is the line?” And “please can someone explain to me what this is?”

‘Because I was getting anecdotal accounts of people who were suffering from it, and I wanted to be able to say what we understood it to be and what we were doing about it.

‘And what we were doing about it is fighting Covid, because the way to stop long Covid is to, is to stop Covid.’

Latest data from the Office for National Statistics suggests 1.9million people, or nearly three per cent of the population, had long Covid in March. 

Fatigue, ‘brain fog’ and shortness of breath are the most common self-reported symptoms of the poorly-understood phenomenon, which refers to Covid symptoms that linger for more than four weeks after infection.

While many long Covid sufferers find their symptoms eventually fade, some people experience them for months or even years.

Some experts consider long Covid to be on par with chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). 

Commenting on the remarks, Sammie McFarland, chief executive of Long Covid Kids, said: ‘Boris Johnson didn’t apologise for using the language because it was wrong; he only apologised because he got found out and his actions have caused years of bullying and stigma for people suffering from long Covid.

‘We need a sincere apology.

‘But more than that we need action and the inquiry to create meaningful and impactful recommendations going forward.

‘Johnson also said that people think they are unwell. He needs to recognise that this is a real disease and a consequence of the pandemic alongside the unfortunate deaths and hospitalisations.’

Earlier in the Inquiry, Mr Johnson stressed how ‘sorry I am for the pain and the loss and the suffering’ of victims of the pandemic.

He acknowledged that ‘in hindsight’ mistakes had been made, and suggested the danger had been underestimated by scientists in the early stages because the last such crisis was ‘outside living memory’.

Mr Johnson said even by early February the government was ‘not yet believing’ that the ‘reasonable worst case’ of the virus sweeping Brits would be realised.

He confessed that he became ‘really rattled’ when he saw the impact on Italy, where hospitals were overwhelmed. ‘We should have twigged much sooner… I should have twigged,’ he said.

But he rejected the idea that his decisions had resulted in more excess deaths than other parts of the Western world.

Britain was ‘well down the table’ of countries with the highest Covid deaths, he said after being challenged over being the ‘second worst off in Europe’.

In a tetchy exchange with lead counsel Hugo Keith KC, Mr Johnson played down the idea that government decisions had led to a ‘materially’ larger number of deaths.

He pointed to the aging and dense population as a reason why Britain was hard hit. 

And he suggested it is unlikely that earlier restrictions could have avoided the need for a lockdown altogether.

Later in the Inquiry, Mr Johnson choked up as he spoke of Covid’s ‘tragic’ toll.

He had to take a moment to compose himself as he said he had to be ‘realistic’ about what happened in 2020 — a year that also saw him hospitalised with the virus.

Mr Johnson also revealed that major sporting events such as Cheltenham Festival should not have gone ahead in March 2020.

He laid out the things he thought could have been done differently as he acknowledged that there were inevitably missteps at the start of the pandemic.

Mr Johnson also said he should not have shaken hands with ‘everybody’ at the start of that month.

Boris Johnson

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