LONDON - Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended Britain's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, telling an official inquiry he did not recognise the description of a dysfunctional government that bounced from one idea to the next.

The inquiry is examining Britain's response to the pandemic which killed more than 230,000 people in the country. It has heard testimony that the government of then-prime minister Boris Johnson was gripped by infighting and incompetence, and unable to make a decision.

Sunak was a relatively unknown politician when he was promoted to finance minister on the eve of the pandemic, appearing to be sure-footed as he set out hundreds of billions of pounds of support to keep companies and livelihoods afloat.

He told the inquiry on Monday that he wanted to say how "deeply sorry" he was to those who had lost loved ones, and that he was there in the spirit of wanting to learn how the government could do better in any future pandemic.

But he echoed Johnson in saying the fact that "debates raged" was not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's right that there was vigorous debate because these were incredibly consequential decisions for tens of millions of people in all spheres, whether it was health, whether it's education, whether it was economic, whether it was social, whether it was a long-term impact.

"These were incredibly big decisions, the likes of which no prime minister has taken in decades, if ever."

Sunak, who went on to become prime minister after Johnson and his successor Liz Truss were forced out of office, is likely to face questions over whether his focus on protecting the economy came at a detriment to public health.

One former government adviser has told the inquiry that Sunak had said they should "just let people die" as policies to contain the virus led to a 10% contraction in economic output in 2020.

One area of focus for the inquiry is likely to be Sunak's "Eat out to help out" subsidised meal scheme which was designed to boost spending at restaurants, cafes and pubs in August 2020.

Some scientists have since questioned whether it may have contributed to a wave of infections.

(Reporting by Sarah Young, Writing by Kylie MacLellan, Editing by Kate Holton and Angus MacSwan)