‘We did everything we could’: Boris Johnson ‘deeply sorry’ as UK COVID death toll passes 100,000

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
·4 min read

Watch: Boris Johnson’s speech after UK exceeds 100,000 coronavirus deaths

A grim-faced Boris Johnson has said he is “deeply sorry” after the UK’s coronavirus death toll passed 100,000.

“We did everything we could,” Johnson said at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday.

On 17 March last year, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said 20,000 COVID-19 deaths would be a “good outcome”. Sir Patrick was not present at Tuesday’s briefing.

When that 20,000 figure was put to Johnson, he said: “On this day I should repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course, as prime minister I take full responsibility for everything the government has done.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on January 26, 2021. - More than 100,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Britian since the pandemic took hold last year, official data showed on January 26. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson at Tuesday's press conference after the UK's death toll passed 100,000. (Justin Tallis/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

“What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could and continue to do everything that we can to minimise loss of life and minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage and a very, very difficult crisis for our country.”

In his speech at the start of the briefing, Johnson hinted at a formal commemoration for the people who have died, as well as workers and volunteers “who kept our country going” during lockdown and the country’s “brilliant scientists”.

The PM went on: “Until that time, the best and most important thing we can all do to honour the memory of those who have died is to work together with ever greater resolve to defeat this disease. And that is what we will do.”

Shortly before the press conference, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer released a video in which he said the death toll passing 100,000 is a “national tragedy”.

“To all those that are mourning, we must promise to learn the lessons of what went wrong and build a more resilient country,” Starmer said.

Johnson has faced numerous questions about his handling of the pandemic since the first COVID cases were identified on 31 January last year. In July, the PM promised an “independent inquiry”.

On Tuesday, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey called for a public inquiry “now”, saying: “Waiting for the end of this pandemic to hold a public inquiry leaves the country destined to fight yesterday’s battles.”

The death toll has rapidly accelerated over the winter. Two months ago, on 26 November, it stood at 57,030.

Prof Chris Whitty, speaking alongside Johnson at Tuesday’s briefing, said the emergence of the new, more transmissible variant had “changed the situation we’re in very substantially”. He added it had not been predictable in September, when cases started to rise again.

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However, Prof Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist who was influential in the government’s decision to impose the first national lockdown in March last year, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Tuesday that more “stringent” action in September would have saved lives.

He said: "The new variant was unpredictable and did change our understanding of how much was needed to control spread, but we did just let the autumn wave get too far."

Meanwhile, reflecting on the 100,000 death toll, Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “Public compliance with the guidance has mostly been good, so this is predominantly a failure of governance.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 26: Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual press conference on the Covid-19 pandemic, at Downing Street on January 26, 2021 in London, England. More than 100,000 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in Britian since the pandemic took hold last year, official data showed on January 26. (Photo by Justin Tallis - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson at Tuesday's press conference. (Justin Tallis/pool/Getty Images)

“Aspects include delayed decision-making when considering lockdowns, an expensive and flawed roll-out of the test and trace programme, a lack of support to help people self-isolate, a border policy for international arrivals that is extremely lax, and policies that encouraged mixing indoors such as the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme.

“Any inquiry into the UK government handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will find there is a lot to scrutinise.”

Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown