Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, has painted a damning picture of chaos, indecision and deceit at the heart of the British government as ministers confronted the Covid-19 crisis last year.
Cummings, in a marathon evidence session with MPs on Wednesday, opened his remarks by saying: “Senior ministers, officials and advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards the public have a right to expect in a crisis like this.”
The former adviser, who left Downing Street in November after falling out with Johnson, claimed the UK prime minister thought in early 2020 that Covid-19 was “a scare story like swine flu”.
Cummings claimed Matt Hancock, health secretary, had lied on “numerous” occasions to the point where former cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill told Johnson he had “lost confidence in the honesty” of the minister.
He said that “group think” had taken over and ministers were prepared to countenance the possibility of hundreds of thousands of deaths, rather than adopt a Plan B involving an immediate lockdown in March 2020.
Amid the chaos in Downing Street, Cummings revealed a moment of epiphany on March 12 when Helen MacNamara, a senior cabinet office official, came to Number 10 to warn of impending disaster.
“I’ve been told for years there’s a whole plan for this — there is no plan,” Cummings claimed MacNamara said. “I’ve come through here to tell you I think we are absolutely fucked.”
Cummings revealed that he sent a note to Johnson on March 12 in which he warned that the cabinet office — headed by Michael Gove and supposedly the nerve-centre of government — was “terrifyingly shit”.
He claimed ministers were reluctant to sanction a lockdown because behavioural scientists, some of whom were “charlatans”, wrongly claimed Britons would not accept such restrictions or a rigorous testing regime.
Instead ministers initially pursued a Plan A where “herd immunity” was the byproduct of a strategy intended to suppress transmission, rather than halt it in its tracks.
Cummings told the joint hearing by the Commons health and science committees that at one meeting Sedwill suggested “chickenpox parties” might be encouraged to help develop herd immunity.
Greg Clark, chair of the science committee, said it did not require “fancy modelling” to work out that Plan A could result in perhaps 400,000 deaths.
Cummings’s evidence left few reputations undamaged. Chancellor Rishi Sunak was one of the few senior figures to avoid his criticism, but Hancock was the subject of the most sustained attack.
The former adviser claimed that Hancock tried to blame Sunak and Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, for a shortage of protective equipment. Sedwill investigated the claim and concluded it was “not true”.
Sedwill, according to Cummings, then told him and Johnson that he had “lost confidence in the honesty of the secretary of state in these meetings”. Johnson denied that claim in the House of Commons.
Cummings said the prime minister came close to sacking Hancock in April 2020 but pulled back from doing so.
Johnson answered some of Cummings’s allegations at prime minister’s questions, which coincided with the evidence session given by his former adviser some 200 yards away on the parliamentary estate.
He insisted the government was dealing with a uniquely “difficult” set of events, that mistakes would be identified by a public inquiry, and that his focus was on the present and taking Britain out of the crisis.
Keir Starmer, Labour leader, accused Johnson of having no policy, making poor decisions and failing to provide transparency.
But Johnson insisted Starmer was “fixated on the rear view mirror” while he preferred to focus on the latest rollout of the vaccine programme to cover the over-30s.
Number 10 hopes that Cummings’s evidence will be seen as tainted by a perception he is a “bitter” former employee; his own breach of the government’s lockdown in 2020 made him an unpopular figure.
One minister said that Cummings’s desire for retribution, characterised by a Twitter thread spread over 60 posts, read like “revenge porn”.