Cummings: Government’s bungled Covid-19 response strategy caused thousands of avoidable deaths
The prime minister’s former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, has this week given evidence to a joint session of the Commons Health, and Science & Technology select committees, in what was his first public account of what occurred within government throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
During a gripping session which lasted for more than seven hours, Cummings sensationally claimed that complacency and government mistakes in its Covid response strategy culminated in thousands of deaths that could otherwise have been avoided.
Cummings also testified that the prime minister had initially dismissed the virus as a “scare story”, adding that the UK lockdown first called in March 2020 came too late.
Speaking about incumbent health secretary Matt Hancock, Cummings informed the committees that he had “lied” on several occasions and there were at least “15 or 20” justifiable reasons for his dismissal.
Cummings also told MPs that by the time he left Downing Street, he felt that prime minister Boris Johnson was “unfit” to lead the country.
Cummings said: “When the public needed us most the government failed. The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.”
Boris Johnson’s former adviser also apologised before the committee to “all the families of those who died unnecessarily”, as well as candidly admitting his own shortcomings in saying that it was “inarguable” that others could have advised at the highest level more effectively than himself.
Responding to some of Cummings’ incendiary claims at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, the PM defiantly said that the government’s priority was always to “save lives”.
How did the government initially react?
According to Cummings’ testimony, the government was not on a “war footing” when the emergence of the virus became obvious in January and February of 2020, and that it was more toward the end of February when a real sense of urgency actually set in.
Cummings explained that he “spent more and more” of his time dealing with the pandemic in February while the prime minister was on holiday, adding that “after January 30, it was not at all seen that there was going to be a pandemic.”
He went on to label the “procurement system” a "nightmare", claiming that he spent a lot of time over the opening two months of last year “working on the science and technology agenda”.
Meanwhile, prime minister Boris Johnson was said to be complacent about the threat of Covid-19, describing it as a “scare story” and the “new swine flu”.
Herd immunity WAS the official plan
When giving evidence, Cummings reaffirmed that achieving herd immunity was the government’s plan in the early part of 2020.
He said: “It is not that people were thinking this is a good thing and we actively want it, it's that it's a complete inevitability and the only real question it's one of timing, it's either one of herd immunity by September or it's herd immunity by January after a second peak. That was the assumption up until Friday, March 13.”
Cummings added that the health secretary had been “completely wrong” in his denial that herd immunity was the government’s tactic, when speaking on March 15.
Lockdown too late, chaos in Downing Street
Discussing the timing of the first national lockdown, Cummings told MPs that it was “obvious” that restriction should have been enforced sooner, at the very latest by the first week of March. He also expressed deep personal regret that he had not advised the prime minister to call the lockdown earlier.
He said: “I bitterly regret that I didn't hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did. In retrospect there's no doubt I was wrong not to.”
Cummings went on to describe the situation within Downing Street by mid-March as akin to a disaster film.
Recalling discussions that occurred on March 14, Cummings said that the PM was warned that projections suggesting that the peak of the pandemic was “weeks and weeks away” were “completely wrong” and that the NHS would be “smashed within weeks”.
Cummings went on to further describe the time when the government first considered a national lockdown on March 12, calling it a “crazy day” when discussions over then-US president Donald Trump wishing for the UK to join a Middle East bombing campaign took precedence over a Cobra Committee Covid-19 meeting.
He claimed: “Part of Downing Street was talking about bombing Iraq, part was talking about household restrictions, and the prime minister’s girlfriend [Carrie Symonds] was going completely crackers about something trivial [a story in the Times regarding her and Boris Johnson’s pet dog]”.
Failure in the care sector
Discussing care homes, Cummings dismissed the government’s idea that it had protected care homes, saying that “we were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn't happened.”
He continued: “Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them [care homes], we sent people with Covid back.”
Referring to rolling out testing in care homes during the crisis, Cummings said that the endeavour culminated in “complete chaos”.
Prior to delivering his testimony, Cummings uploaded pictures of several whiteboards to his Twitter account which he claimed were outlines of the governments thinking on the pandemic during the early weeks of the outbreak.
Referring to these uploads during the session, Cummings claimed that there was “no functioning data system” in place and a lack of proper testing data.
He added that without a testing infrastructure, all the government could do was “look at [the number of] people arriving in hospital”.
The former aide also said that the government’s original plan for the pandemic would be limited intervention, with the hope that herd immunity could be achieved. However, this plan was forcibly scrapped when the potential death toll became clear and obvious.
Cummings also said that some of the decisions taken by the SAGE committee were not properly scrutinised.
The health secretary
Speaking about health secretary Matt Hancock, Cummings informed the committee that he “should have been fired for at least 15 or 20” different things, going on to say that he “repeatedly” told the PM to dismiss him, as did the cabinet secretary and “other senior people”.
He said: “I think there is no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has the right to expect. I think that the secretary of state for health is certainly one of those people.”
Cummings also labelled Hancock “completely incapable” of doing his job and accused him of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm”.
PM’s hospitalisation in April 2020
Recalling the period in April 2020 where the prime minister contracted Covid and was hospitalised, Cummings was heavily critical of the running of government in his absence, claiming it had “collapsed”.
He also took aim at the health secretary’s conduct, accusing him of setting a “stupid” and unrealistic target of 100,000 Covid tests per day being carried out by the end of the month while Johnson was seriously ill.
Sensationally, Cummings also claimed that Hancock deliberately held some tests back so that the end of April target would be hit.
However, Cummings did reserve praise for foreign secretary Dominic Raab, who he claimed did “brilliantly” when deputising for the PM.
The Barnard Castle affair
Cummings used the session to offer his own version of events concerning the Barnard Castle controversy once more, for which he had faced significant criticism last year having travelled from his London home to the County Durham town despite the country being in lockdown.
Having said at the time that the trip was motivated by a need for childcare support after he and his wife both contracted Covid, Cummings has now changed his story and told the committee that he moved his family from London following threats to their safety, and furthermore regrets not telling the truth about the matter sooner.
He also referred to his infamous press conference at the rose garden of Number Ten as a “total disaster” and a hastened attempt by the prime minister to provide the public with a justifiable explanation.
Cummings added that it was a “terrible misjudgement” not to explain the reality of the situation and that the entire saga had undermined public confidence.
PM not on board with closing borders last year
Referring to the UK’s border policy during the crisis, Cummings told MPs that the prime minister was against border closures or imposing harder controls to reduce the spread of Covid in April 2020.
Cummings said that there was a sense in government that border closures could be perceived as “racist” by members of the public, and that the nation still lacked a “proper border policy” to date.
"The government is still not acting properly, we still don't have a proper border policy”, Cummings told MPs.
Suggestion of September 2020 lockdown “ignored”
Continuing to criticise the prime minister’s instincts, Cummings said that Johnson turned away recommendations of a second lockdown in England which would have come into force in September 2020.
He added that Johnson had ignored advice of a second lockdown, and that the PM at the time felt that he had been pressured into imposing the first lockdown and that the economic hardship from a second raft of restrictions would outweigh the damage done by Covid.
Tiers system was flawed
When asked about the government’s tiered system of restrictions which emerged following the first national lockdown, Cummings responded that the system was the right approach at the time and had proven successful in other countries.
The pitfall, however, was in his words that the “thinking was done too late” and that many operational matters were not properly handled.
All in all, in practice, Cummings labelled the tiers system “full of holes” and something that was “put together chaotically”.
Johnson “unfit” to lead
Among Cummings’ most damning statements of the session was his saying that “thousands” of people would have been more up to the task of guiding the UK through the crisis than Boris Johnson.
He also said that frontline workers and civil servants were “lions led by donkeys” throughout the crisis.
Discussing the period leading up to Cummings’ departure from Downing Street, the ex-adviser said that his relationship with the PM had taken a “terrible dive” following the second national lockdown in October, because Johnson knew Cummings lay the blame at the prime minister’s door for the entire situation the country found itself in.
Cummings added that by that time, he regarded Johnson as “unfit for the job” and claimed that he was constantly “trying to push other things through” against the prime minister’s wishes.
The Health Select Committee’s joint inquiry will recommence in two weeks, when health secretary Matt Hancock will appear before MPs.