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Ex-PM Johnson hits out at 'version' of Partygate which prompted his downfall
Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Thursday hit out at "absolutely absurd" portrayals of partying in Downing Street during the Covid pandemic, as he faced a second day of questioning at a public inquiry.
Johnson, 59, was forced from office last year after public anger at revelations about the series of Covid lockdown-breaching parties dubbed "Partygate".
But he insisted to the inquiry that perceptions of the scandal were "a million miles from the reality of what happened".
It follows the ex-leader apologising on Wednesday for "the pain and the loss and the suffering" caused by the pandemic on his much-anticipated first day in the witness box, and accepting "mistakes" had "unquestionably" occurred.
Nearly 130,000 people died with Covid in Britain by mid-July 2021, one of the worst official per capita tolls among Western nations.
Johnson has faced a barrage of criticism from ex-aides for alleged indecisiveness and lack of scientific understanding, as well as for the Downing Street culture that facilitated Partygate.
"I continue to regret very much what happened," Johnson said on Thursday when asked about the scandal, before branding "dramatic representations" of it "a travesty of the truth".
"The version of events that has entered the popular consciousness about what is supposed to have happened in Downing Street is a million miles from the reality of what actually happened," he added.
His aides and officials "thought they were working very, very hard -- which they were -- and I certainly thought that what we were doing was... within the rules," Johnson added.
Police last year fined the former leader -- and his current successor Rishi Sunak -- as well as dozens of staff for flouting the Covid restrictions they set by attending boozy gatherings in Downing Street.
A parliamentary inquiry concluded Johnson had repeatedly misled parliament over the parties, and he resigned as a lawmaker shortly before its findings were published earlier this year.
- 'Simply not right' -
Johnson's pushback came as the lawyer for the inquiry -- created to learn lessons from the country's response to the health emergency -- grilled his contentious decision-making as the virus repeatedly re-emerged in 2020.
The ex-leader defended his choice to delay a national lockdown during a second wave of Covid, and his internal use of the phrase "let it rip" to refer to a possible so-called herd immunity strategy.
Johnson claimed "plenty of people" were using the phrase to describe the potential strategy of shielding the vulnerable and allowing the rest of the population to acquire immunity.
He also disputed suggestions that offering financial inducements for people to eat out after the first lockdown was lifted -- then-finance minister Sunak's signature policy -- had caused a rise in infections.
"I can't see anything that conclusively shows that it made a big difference," he said.
"If it was safe to open hospitality, then it must be safe for people to go to hospitality."
In his first day of evidence, Johnson repeatedly insisted he and officials did their "level best" and that his priority was always to save lives and the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
On Thursday, he appeared close to tears as he pushed back on claims of "indifference" towards those with Covid, recalling his own hospitalisation with the virus.
"The NHS... did an amazing job and helped me survive but I knew from that experience what appalling a disease this is," he said.
"To say that I didn't care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right."
But relatives of the bereaved have been highly critical.
Four women were evicted from the inquiry room on Wednesday after holding up signs stating "the dead can't hear your apologies".
Later, a crowd that had gathered outside the venue heckled loudly as he left for the day.
Sunak will face the inquiry on Monday.