Analysis: Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser says UK fell ‘disastrously short’ on Covid-19

Throughout his evidence, Cummings appeared eager to paint himself as being alert to the seriousness of the pandemic in January 2020, long before many others in government were taking it seriously. He claimed his former colleagues “failed to see the smoke” when Asian countries, notably Taiwan, hit the “panic button” around the turn of the year.

He said that senior government officials were occupied with other activities, be they professional or, in Cummings’ words, “literally skiing,” which meant the government was not on a “war footing” early enough.

Cummings claimed that the Prime Minister believed the coronavirus to be little more than a scare story and would say things like he wanted to have England’s chief medical officer “inject him with Covid” live on air to prove it was nothing to worry about.

Central to Cummings’s criticism of Johnson and his government is a lack of preparedness, leading to lockdowns being delayed and policies like herd immunity being pursued.

Boris Johnson is using culture wars to cement his grip on power. That's a big risk in angry and divided Britain

Cummings claimed that he first told Johnson the UK needed to be put under hard lockdown measures on March 11, 2020. National lockdown was not imposed until March 23.

Cummings listed numerous reasons for this delay, ranging from a belief that the British public would not go along with “Wuhan-style” measures, to external distractions. These ranged from then-US President Donald Trump wanting the UK to join a bombing mission in the Middle East, to stories about Johnson’s fiance, Carrie Symonds, being upset about stories in newspapers about the couple’s dog. But ultimately, his main accusation was that the government was simply unprepared and the plan in place at this time was based on falsehoods.

The former adviser also criticized the government’s relatively poor data at the start of the pandemic. When asked what was informing decisions, Cummings said that early on, the only data the government could work with before April was numbers he himself was writing onto a whiteboard of admission to hospital intensive care units. He would then multiply these numbers on his iPhone to show where the situation might be in five days’ time.

“Once you are looking at ICU admission as your only form of data, you know you’re in trouble,” Cummings said.

Boris Johnson's own affection for Dominic Cummings was well known in Downing Street.

On herd immunity, Cummings claimed that the government was working on an assumption that nothing could be done to stop the virus spreading and that vaccines would not be “relevant in 2020.” He said that UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was “completely wrong” when he said on March 15, 2020, that herd immunity wasn’t part of the government’s plan, because “herd immunity was regarded as an unavoidable fact.”

One of the biggest early failures of the UK’s response to Covid-19 was in building a fit-for-purpose test-and-trace system. Cummings said this was the fault of the core of government collapsing around the time that Johnson went into hospital after falling ill with Covid.

He said that during this period, Hancock “stupidly” pledged to deliver 100,000 tests a day purely “so he could go on TV” and claim a success. He claimed that Hancock directly interfered with the testing program to help him reach his target, preventing the team to build the system properly. Hancock did this, Cummings claims, while the Prime Minister was on what many thought was his “death bed.”

He argued, as many others have, that the government’s obsession with centralized control of testing prohibited private companies from helping, which meant the UK didn’t have enough tests early in the pandemic.

Cummings also criticized the slow pace at which the UK closed its borders. He said that arguments were made that shutting borders looked racist and would cripple the tourism industry. Cummings thinks that this undermined the whole pandemic effort.

In a particularly emotional moment of the hearing, Cummings spoke of the failures around care homes and social care, which were hit badly by the pandemic. He said that Hancock had claimed people going back into care homes would be tested, when in reality many weren’t. He also claimed that people working in care homes and social care were not given sufficient protective equipment nor tested often enough, allowing the virus to spread to the most vulnerable in society.

While Cummings was less critical of Johnson than many were expecting, he did pour scorn on many of the choices that Johnson made later in the crisis. These mostly included poor communication on policy decisions, most notably the two public fights Johnson picked with the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford. Rashford was campaigning for the government to provide free school meals for children whose families were struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic. Johnson was forced to U-turn, both times.

“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 after day, you’re going to have communications disasters,” Cummings said.

Beyond the pandemic, Cummings criticized the whole system of British politics, saying that a system that offers a choice between Johnson or the former leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn “something’s gone extremely, extremely, wrong.”

He painted the Prime Minister as a man “a thousand times too obsessed with the media” and said that the Health Secretary should have been sacked for numerous reasons, including “publicly lying.”

He painted a picture of an insular political system that promotes the wrong types of people and gives them incentives that don’t result in the best form of governance.

When asked if he was only giving evidence to settle personal scores, Cummings said he thinks the families of those who died “deserve the truth.”

Speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson defended his government’s actions throughout the pandemic. Without directly addressing Cummings’ claims, he accused his opponents of looking in “the rear view mirror” while his government pressed on with its vaccination program.

An almost mythical figure

Critics of Cummings have already questioned his legitimacy as a witness. During the period of time that his evidence concerns, he was arguably the most senior person working inside Downing Street, aside from Johnson.

He repeatedly won battles with other government officials, cementing his absolute authority as the most important person in Johnson’s inner circle. Johnson’s own affection for Cummings was well known. The Prime Minister had on more than one occasion called his former chief adviser a “genius” who he “loved” during private events at which CNN was present. During Cummings’ time in government, he would frequently attend press briefings and lurk at the back, watching his subordinates at work, much to their discomfort. Meanwhile, journalists would flock around a man who had come to be an almost mythical figure.

It’s therefore extremely unlikely that the views of Cummings were ignored or sidelined at the height of the pandemic.

It’s also worth noting that Cummings is discredited for other reasons, most notably the time he drove his wife and child hundreds of miles across the country during a national lockdown after coming down with Covid-like symptoms.

Cummings explained during the session that he moved his family out of London because he had received death threats.

According to Ben Page of public research firm IPSOS Mori, “Cummings was the number one reason people gave when explaining why they broke lockdown restrictions. He is a very unpopular and discredited man.”

He apologized on Wednesday for undermining confidence in the UK’s pandemic response efforts.

Also affecting the legitimacy of this evidence is that fact that Cummings quit his position in the midst of a factional battle at the heart of Downing Street that he and his allies are believed to have lost. This, critics have argued, could be the key motivating factor behind any attacks on Johnson’s inner circle that do not relate to the pandemic.

No matter how stunning the words of Cummings might be to those watching, the reality is most of the country won’t be as fixated as those in the Westminster bubble. The combination of Cummings’ poor reputation and the fact that the UK’s vaccine rollout has gone so well means this story is likely to blow over in days.

However, despite Johnson’s relative success in the latter stages of the pandemic, the public might at some point remember all of the early missteps, especially when the inevitable public inquiry gets underway.

The leader of the official opposition, Keir Starmer, said Cummings’ evidence was “the latest chapter of a story of confusion, chaos and deadly misjudgements.” And while Johnson might be on course for a joyous summer of lockdown’s end, there is a risk that at some point, this will play into a wider, damning retrospective of how his government failed the country in its hour of need.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the UK’s first lockdown. It was imposed on March 23, 2020.

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