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LONDON — Former Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings said the U.K. government suffered from poor leadership and “groupthink” in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic which led to catastrophic failures in its response.
In a devastating critique of the government in which he was the top adviser until November 2020, he accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of incompetence and said the Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been fired many times for “lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly.”
The former top adviser to Johnson began a marathon and much-anticipated committee hearing with a note of contrition. “I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that,” he told MPs.
Cummings went on to make a series of extraordinary claims about the turning point of 13 March when it became clear to him that a lockdown was required. He told the committee that Helen McNamara, the deputy cabinet secretary, informed him and other government advisers there was “no plan” to deal with the severity of the threat, and “we are absolutely fucked.” He said that No. 10 advisers were under the impression that there had been detailed emergency planning to draw on.
He compared the situation to the movie Independence Day, with Ben Warner, a physicist hired by Cummings, in the role of Jeff Goldblum, warning everyone about the imminent arrival of aliens. As an example of the wrongheadedness at play, Cummings said Mark Sedwill, then head of the civil service, advised the prime minister to appear on television and tell the public COVID “is like chickenpox” and they needed to have “chickenpox parties” to spread it.
That was based on an assumption that it would be easier for the National Health Service to deal with a peak of infections in the summer than to suppress the virus in the short term and have it resurge in the winter. Ministers also assumed that people in the U.K. would not accept lockdown measures.
The unwillingness to move to a full lockdown at that point was “a classical historical example of groupthink in action”, he said, as people could not grasp that the worst-case scenario might come to pass, and he repeated his regret at not pushing back harder.
He added there were 15 or 20 occasions on which the Hancock should have been fired and he had said so to Johnson at the time.
Cummings claimed there were “numerous examples” of Hancock lying, specifying that in the summer Hancock said publicly everyone who needed treatment got the treatment they required. “He knew that was a lie. He’d been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer that people could not get the treatment they deserve,” Cummings alleged.
He also took a swipe at the competence of his former boss, saying that the British political system had presented the public with a poor choice of potential leaders at the last general election in Johnson and then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “There are thousands of people in this country who could provide better leadership than either of those two,” he said.
More than 120,000 people have died in Britain due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the U.K. has also faced one of the worst economic hits, according to the OECD.
“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,” Cummings said. “When the public needed us most, the government failed.”
The Commons health and science committees have joined forces for an initial inquiry into the mishandling of the pandemic — although Johnson has said an independent public probe will be launched in the coming months.
Cummings is famous in Britain for leading the Vote Leave campaign that led to Brexit, then later for breaching coronavirus rules with a trip to Barnard Castle in Durham.
After accepting a share of responsibility, Cummings leveled a series of damaging accusations at the prime minister. He said the government “was not on a war footing” in mid- to late February and that Johnson went on holiday for two weeks at that point.
He went on to claim there was a view among No. 10 officials that it would not have been helpful for Johnson to chair COBR meetings — the committee of government, health and security services convened in national emergencies — in February because he would “tell everyone it’s swine flu, don’t worry about it.” He added the prime minister then regarded it as a “scare story”.
Cummings also heaped scorn on the government’s border policy, saying that before April the official advice was that closing the country’s borders “would not have any effect,” something he deemed another example of Whitehall “groupthink.”
He claimed he told officials it was “madness” not to stop travel into the country, but that Johnson at this point “was back to thinking lockdown was a mistake” and that he wanted to be “the mayor of Jaws.” This was an apparent reference to Johnson’s fondness for the movie character who keeps beaches open despite the menace of a giant man-eating shark.
“Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy because the prime minister never wanted a proper border policy,” Cummings claimed.
Johnson tried to brush off Cummings’ evidence when confronted at prime minister’s questions by Labour leader Keir Starmer.
The prime minister hit back, telling MPs: “The handling of the pandemic has been the most difficult thing this government has had to do in a very long time. None of the decisions have been easy, and to go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing. At every stage we tried to minimise loss of life.”
He denied he had ever been “complacent” and insisted he had faith in his health secretary despite the aspersions cast on his honesty by Cummings. Johnson charged Starmer with being “as fixated as ever on rear view mirror.”
This story has been updated.
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