Boris Johnson made the Covid-19 pandemic worse by refusing to sack his “repeatedly lying” health minister, his former chief adviser said.
In a series of allegations made to a parliamentary committee on Wednesday giving unique insight into the British government's emergency decision-making, Dominic Cummings revealed how close to catastrophe the country came in early March 2020.
Appalling data collection, lack of equipment and key ministers on holiday in February put the country only days from a collapsed National Health Service and potentially 500,000 deaths.
At one point, a top government official rushed into the Prime Minister’s office and said: “This country's headed for disaster, I think we're going to kill thousands of people.” Another official exclaimed: “There is no plan, we're in huge trouble.”
Despite Mr Cummings recent falling out with his former boss, the special adviser reserved his most biting allegations – made under parliamentary privilege – for Health Secretary Matt Hancock, accusing him of lying consistently to Mr Johnson.
“I think that the Secretary of State for Health should have been fired for at least 15 or 20 things including lies on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting,” he said.
Health officials showed no sense of urgency of the impending disaster, Mr Cummings said. They failed to buy breathing ventilators in time because prices had been “marked up”. They also insisted on shipping personal protective equipment from China that would take weeks to arrive “because that’s the way they had always done it”. Mr Cummings, 49, said he ordered them to send a plane immediately to fetch the kit.
He said Mr Hancock’s early claims “about brilliant preparations” for the pandemic proved to be “basically, completely hollow”. It soon transpired that there “wasn’t even a plan to bury the bodies”.
Emergency planners were asked by Mr Cummings in early January 2020 if they had the contingencies in place to deal with the Covid pandemic. He was reassured that they did, and despite the scenes in Wuhan, China and then in northern Italy, there was still a lackadaisical approach to the disease arriving in Britain.
“Government was not operating on a war footing in February in any way, shape or form,” he told the Science and Technology Committee. “Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.” He said it was not until the last week of February, after the prime minister had arrived back from his own two-week holiday, that there was “any sort of sense of urgency”.
He claimed the necessity for herd immunity was initially "regarded as an unavoidable fact" with a predicted peak in deaths in June, which would have prevented the NHS being swamped by high infections during winter.
But the rate of infections and deaths soon made it impossible to avoid a lockdown to prevent the disease swamping the NHS.
As it dawned on Downing Street that Britain would have to follow the rest of Europe into lockdown, Mr Cummings set up a series of Covid emergency meetings for March 12.
But it turned into a bizarre day in which the meetings were scuppered by a request by former US president Donald Trump to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East and a story in the Times newspaper about the pet dog of Carrie Symonds, now Mr Johnson's fiancee, over which she was "going crackers" and "demanding that the press office deal with that".
“So, we had this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying, ‘are we going to bomb Iraq?’, part of the building arguing about whether or not we do quarantine and the prime minister’s girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.”
Two days later, it became clear that lockdown had to be imposed as “the NHS is going to be smashed in weeks, and we’ve got days to act”. But there was no detailed plan on how to implement the shutdown and for another week major public gatherings were allowed to continue.
“It's obvious in retrospect that I just left this whole thing far, far too late and I'm terribly sorry about that,” Mr Cummings said.
His apology reflected the mea culpa moment at the start of the marathon six hours' of questioning. “The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials and senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect,” he said.
“When the public needed it most, the government failed and I'd like to say to all the families of those who died how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made.”
Mr Cummings insisted that his motivation for “everything to come out” was to avoid such disastrous mistakes being made again.
He was highly critical of Mr Johnson for being “about 1,000 times far too obsessed with the media in a way which undermines him doing his own job”.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt opened at the neck, Mr Cummings, who remained largely unflustered throughout, suggested the prime minister was the very person defeating the government messaging. “It doesn't matter if you've got great people doing communications, if the prime minister changes his mind 10 times a day and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy day after day, you're going to have a communications disaster.”
While poor decisions were made by Mr Johnson, his former aide accepted that “he was extremely badly let down by the whole system and it was a system failure, of which I include myself in that as well, I also failed”.
“Fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job,” Mr Cummings said when asked about the subsequent breakdown in the relationship between the two.
In hindsight, Britain should have copied the strategy of countries that had previously experienced epidemics such as Taiwan. “We should have closed the borders, ramped up testing, made masks compulsory and had compulsory quarantine properly enforced by January,” he said.
His evidence raised questions over the security at the UK’s highest level meetings, including the Cobra emergency briefings, which “leaked like a sieve”. Mr Cummings said this made it impossible to take key decisions as people were afraid their words or thinking would be leaked. In the end the government had to set up a part-time office in Number 10 to avoid breaches in confidentiality.
The expectation had been that Mr Cummings would land a lethal blow on Mr Johnson making his continued premiership untenable. That did not appear to materialise but his evidence will be picked over for months and perhaps years to come as he has opened a lid on the very heart of prime ministerial decision-making.
The British public knows that Mr Johnson’s government committed serious errors at the start of the pandemic and should have locked down much earlier. But they also understand this was an unprecedented situation, that a major disaster was averted, the economy remained intact and, most importantly, the vaccination programme has proved an outstanding success.
The Conservative performance in local elections this month and its enduring lead in the polls shows that Boris Johnson’s popularity remains untarnished, even by the vengeful barbs fired by the man who was formerly his closest associate.