(Bloomberg) -- Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there was no “conclusive” evidence that a UK government program to encourage Britons back into restaurants and bars after the first coronavirus lockdown in 2020 helped spread the virus again, as he strongly defended his leadership during the pandemic following widespread criticism.

Pressed on the £840 million ($1.06 billion) Eat Out to Help Out subsidized meals plan that was spearheaded by current premier Rishi Sunak — then Chancellor of the Exchequer — Johnson told the UK’s Covid-19 inquiry on Thursday he hadn’t been warned that it risked accelerating the spread of the virus and hadn’t considered it a “gamble.” 

Johnson also branded as “absolutely absurd” media reports and TV versions of the “Partygate” scandal that played a large part in his downfall last year. Accounts of the series of rule-breaking gatherings in Downing Street were “a million miles from the reality of what actually happened,” he said, conceding he should have told his staff to be “mindful of the rules” in general.

Johnson was giving long-awaited evidence for a second day, after saying on Wednesday his government had initially underestimated the threat of the virus and made mistakes. Thursday’s evidence session focused on the summer and autumn of 2020 as restrictions were eased after the first national lockdown, only for England to be plunged into a second one at the end of October when cases soared.

The Eat Out to Help Out program in August 2020 has been criticized by health experts for spreading the virus, and senior officials have told how they were kept in the dark on the program. It is likely to form a significant part of Sunak’s own evidence to the inquiry on Monday, because he was the face of the plan and added his own signature to its online branding. 

Sunak will seek to defend himself against criticism and protect his legacy, as he faces a general election next year while his ruling Conservative Party trails Labour by around 20 points in the polls.

On the dining-out program, Johnson said he “can’t see anything that conclusively shows that it made a big difference” to the spread of the virus. “I don’t think I thought that scheme in itself was a particular gamble at the time, it certainly wasn’t presented to me as such.”

More than 230,000 people have died in the UK with Covid-19 on their death certificate. Johnson has been accused of failing to make decisions quickly on restrictions and allowing the virus to spread from hospitals to care homes.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Johnson:

  • Dismissed comments he made privately about letting coronavirus “rip” and that elderly people had “had a good innings,” insisting he had been challenging scientific consensus in meetings with scientists and acting as a “layperson.”
  • Defended his decision not to impose a “circuit breaker” earlier in autumn 2020 and accepted that the regional system of “tiers” with different restrictions did not work. “They were worth a try,” he said.
  • Said he thought government scientists were aware of the Eat Out to Help Out program, after Vallance told the probe last month they were not told about the plan before it was announced.
  • Conceded that Covid laws to restrict people’s movement in 2020 had been “extremely complicated” and future approaches could “rely more on common sense and less on regulation and legislation.”

Johnson recalled his own experience in the hospital with Covid-19 in April 2020. “When I went into intensive care, I saw around me a lot of people who were not actually elderly,” he said. “In fact, they were middle-aged men and they were quite like me. And some of us were going to make it and some of us weren’t.”

“To say that I didn’t care about the suffering that was being inflicted on the country is simply not right,” he added.

Becky Kummer, spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign group, said in an emailed statement: “He did not ‘get the big calls right,’ he failed to take the pandemic seriously in early 2020, leaving us brutally unprepared, and failed to learn from his mistakes meaning that the second wave had an even higher death toll than the first.”

(Updates with context and quotes throughout.)

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