The former chief adviser to Boris Johnson has unloaded on the British Prime Minister in explosive testimony before parliament, saying “tens of thousands” of people died because he mishandled the coronavirus pandemic.
Dominic Cummings, a political strategist, resigned from his role advising Mr Johnson last November amid reports of infighting at 10 Downing St, and has spent recent weeks publicly criticising the British government.
You might remember him as the guy who controversially broke Covid-19 lockdown rules by driving across the United Kingdom to visit his parents’ house. He was also the director of Vote Leave, which successfully campaigned in favour of Brexit in 2016.
Today Mr Cummings spent seven hours giving evidence to parliament’s health and science committees about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
He made a series of extraordinary claims, saying Mr Johnson didn’t take the virus seriously enough, the government botched critical elements of its response, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock repeatedly “lied” to the public.
“Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die,” Mr Cummings said.
The UK death toll currently stands at 127,000, which is the fifth-worst in the world.
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PM thought it was ‘just a scare story’
At the beginning of the pandemic in February and March, Mr Cummings said, Mr Johnson did not think Covid was a serious threat. Neither did many of the people occupying senior positions in the public service.
“Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February,” he said.
“In February, the Prime Minister regarded this as just a scare story. He described it as ‘the new swine flu’.”
It has previously been reported that Mr Johnson was absent from five emergency coronavirus meetings at the start of the pandemic.
“The view of senior officials inside the tent was, if we have the Prime Minister chairing Covid meetings and he just tells everyone, ‘It’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me on live TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of,’ that would not help actually serious planning,” said Mr Cummings.
Professor Whitty is England’s chief medical officer.
The UK entered its first Covid lockdown in late March. According to Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson would come to regard it as a mistake.
“Fundamentally, the Prime Minister and I do not agree about Covid,” he said.
“After March, he thought that the lesson to be learned is we shouldn’t have done a lockdown, we should have focused on the economy, it was all a disaster. I thought that perspective was completely mad.
“I had very little influence on Covid stuff. I mean I tried, I made arguments. But as you can see, on pretty much all the major arguments, I basically lost.
“There were quite a few people around Whitehall who thought the real danger was the economy. The Prime Minister’s view was that the real danger was not the disease, but the measures we take against the disease and the economic consequences.
“Fundamentally, the Prime Minister just didn’t think it was a danger.”
Government response ‘beggars belief’
Mr Cummings painted a chaotic picture of the government’s initial response, when it struggled to settle on a consistent message, set up widespread testing and get vital resources.
He said Mr Johnson was “constantly changing his mind” about the different tiers of restrictions, the government had “no functioning data system” for tracking the spread of the disease, and its system for procuring personal protective equipment.
At one point, the government turned down offers for it to purchase desperately needed ventilators because the prices had gone up.
“It completely beggars belief,” said Mr Cummings.
“The whole system was like wading through treacle. That’s why I described it as a smoking ruin.”
He turned this line into a broader critique of the talent in the British government.
“It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there. Just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there, and that the choice at the last election was Jeremy Corbyn,” Mr Cummings said.
Mr Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party from 2015-2020. After the last general election, when the incumbent Conservative government gained seats, he was replaced with Sir Keir Starmer.
“There’s so many thousands and thousands of wonderful people in this country who could provide better leadership than either of those two. And there’s obviously something terribly wrong with the political parties if that’s the best that they can do.”
Asked whether Mr Johnson was a “fit and proper person” to get Britain through the pandemic, his answer was brief.
“No,” Mr Cummings said.
His extensive cricitism of Mr Johnson did come with one caveat, however.
“There is no doubt that the Prime Minister made some very bad misjudgements and got some very serious things wrong,” he said.
“It’s also the case, there’s no doubt, that he was extremely badly let down by the whole system. And it was a system failure of which I include myself in that too. I also failed.
“If you dropped, you know, Bill Gates or someone like that into that job on the first of March, the most competent people in the world you could possibly find, any of them would have had a complete nightmare.”
Health Secretary ‘lied to everybody’
Mr Cummings reserved his most withering critique for the Health Secretary, Mr Hancock.
“I think (Hancock) should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions, in meeting after meeting, in the Cabinet room and publicly,” said Mr Cummings.
“Many senior people performed far, far, disastrously below the standards the country has a right to expect. (Hancock) is certainly one of those people.
“I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should have been fired. So did the Cabinet Secretary. So did many other senior people.
“There was certainly no good reason for keeping him.”
One of Mr Hancock’s alleged stuff-up’s was his handling of Britain’s testing and contact tracing system.
“I said, ‘If we don’t fire the Secretary and we don’t get testing into someone’s hands, we are going to kill lots of people,” Mr Cummings recounted.
Another misstep was the government allowing aged care residents to return to their facilities without being tested for the virus.
“The government rhetoric was that we put a ‘shield’ around care homes,” he said.
“It was complete nonsense. The opposite of putting a shield around them. We sent people with Covid back to the care homes.
“It was a catastrophic situation. There is no other way to describe it.”
In April, when the government realised untested people had been returned to homes, Mr Johnson was baffled.
“Boris Johnson said a less polite version of, ‘What on earth are you telling me?’” Mr Cummings told the committees.
“‘Hancock told us in the Cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?’”
Finally, Mr Cummings accused Mr Hancock of using the government’s chief medical advisers, Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Whitty, as “shields for himself” to deflect public criticism.
Mr Hancock will appear before the same committees as Mr Cummings two weeks from now, giving him a chance to respond to these allegations. He is also scheduled to hold a media conference tomorrow.
For now, his office hit back in a written statement.
“At all times throughout this pandemic, the secretary and everyone in the department have worked incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances to protect the NHS and save lives. We absolutely reject Mr Cummings’ claims about the Health Secretary,” Mr Hancock’s office said.
“The Health Secretary will continue to work closely with the Prime Minister to deliver the vaccine rollout, tackle the risks posed by variants and support the NHS and social care sector to recover from this pandemic.”
Downing St, for its part, has said it will not respond to Mr Cummings’ individual claims.
Opposition demands faster independent inquiry
As things stand, Mr Johnson has promised an independent inquiry into Britain’s Covid response, which would commence next year.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described Mr Cummings claim that thousands needlessly died as “a devastating admission”, saying it justified a faster timetable.
“Very serious allegations have been made against Boris Johnson and his handling of Covid,” said Mr Starmer.
“No more delays. A public inquiry needs to start this summer.”
Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, echoed that call for an accelerated inquiry.
“I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for bereaved families to listen to Dominic Cummings’ evidence today. They deserve to know the whole truth and they deserve to know it now,” said Mr Davey.
“The Prime Minister must set up the inquiry he promised immediately. No more delays.”