OUTSIDE protesters whose family members had died from Covid held a banner denouncing a disgraced former prime minister “trying to save his reputation”.

Inside, Boris Johnson was spared the full force of a grilling from the inquiry’s main lawyer Hugo Keith.

His real drubbing – if it comes – will come on Thursday. 

There were occasional flare-ups of temper from the former PM, who opened with an apology to those who had suffered from and lost loved ones to Covid.

Johnson tried to soften the image of his government as being engulfed in chaos but conceded he should have “twigged sooner” the risk the virus posed.

The picture he painted was one of an oblivious group of ministers, advisers and officials, all of whom were  – including top scientific advisers – relatively relaxed about the risks of Covid as the first reports emerged from China.

'We seem so oblivious'

Asked about his reaction to horrific reports from Italy in early February – at this point China was already in lockdown – Johnson said he had been “rattled” by them.

“I look at all this stuff, in which we seem so oblivious, with horror now, we should have twigged, we should collectively have twigged much sooner […] I should have twigged,” he added.

He said the prevailing view in early February was that the UK should not overreact to the virus and that many felt it would prove to be another swine flu, which left the UK unscathed.

Johnson also got the opportunity to challenge some other testimony given to the inquiry, including that he had taken a holiday during the half-term break in February to Chevening House, a stately home in Kent.

The National: Trump

He insisted he had remained working throughout the trip and visited Downing Street three times in that period, as well as calling President Xi of China – in part to discuss the origins of Covid “and to compare notes on what was happening” – and also phoned president Donald Trump (above) in the US to discuss the same thing.

Keith challenged Johnson on whether work on Covid had slowed during the half-term break and Johnson conceded that the pace picked up after the holiday ended.

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But Johnson insisted that basically everyone in Whitehall was unaware of how fast Covid was spreading through the population.

Flattening the curve

Johnson spoke of his concerns about flattening the curve – which refers to graphs showing how many people could be expected to contract Covid – to a level which would not overwhelm the NHS.

He defended his decisions to allow mass events to go ahead in early March, including the Cheltenham horse racing festival and a football match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, saying to do otherwise would have pushed people into the pubs.

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What eventually pushed him into imposing a lockdown, Johnson said, was a report he was shown by Chris Whitty on the weekend before March 23, 2020 – the date the UK properly entered lockdown.

It showed compliance levels with the voluntary safety measures already introduced were very low and risked overwhelming the NHS.

“We’d run out of wiggle room,” Johnson said.

Keith then probed Johnson on whether the government had therefore given sufficient time to assess the likely social effects of a stay at home order – given the voluntary measures, which also included the closure of schools, non-essential shops and leisure facilities, had not been in place long.

This was a “very uncertain foundation upon which to order the ultimate sanction, the mandatory stay at home order,” Keith suggested.

Johnson replied: “I no longer had the luxury of waiting."

It also emerged that at roughly the same time, Johnson had been querying in private WhatsApp messages about how many Covid deaths could actually be attributed to the virus itself.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson booed he leaves UK Covid-19 Inquiry

Johnson was also fairly politic about the UK Government’s relations with the devolved administrations, admitting the communications were “not working particularly well”.

He was flustered when Keith pointed out the former PM’s written evidence appeared to contradict another statement he made saying he’d have liked to work more closely with the devolved parliaments if had his “time again”.

God complexes, misogyny and internecine warfare

And finally, Johnson got his chance to defend his leadership in No 10.

Summarising the complaints about the inner working of government from former top civil servants as being filled with “God complex[es], leadership issues, toxicity, misogyny, perpetual internecine warfare”, Keith asked what Johnson made of that characterisation.

Johnson adopted his most affable persona to explain it away as saying that if he spoke “bluntly and freely" in meetings, it was merely to encourage others to do the same.

He added: “I thought it was better on the whole for the country to have a disputatious culture in No 10 than one that was quietly acquiescent to whatever I or the scientists said.”

Fair enough, but earlier when questioned about civil servants being too fed up of the toxicity in Downing Street to come into work, Johnson swiped the claims away by saying he’d not had discussions about anyone’s “behaviour”, honest.

Johnson will have breathed a sigh of relief when he escaped the inquiry and the protesters into his chauffeur-driven car on Wednesday afternoon. Until he realised it’s the latter half of his premiership in the frame on Thursday morning.