Dominic Cummings’ evidence to MPs on Covid crisis: the key quotes

Dominic Cummings has shone a light on almost all aspects of the coronavirus pandemic: the key political figures, what dilemmas they faced and how they took decisions. In explosive testimony to two parliamentary committees lasting more than six hours, this is what he said on:

The early weeks – no sense of urgency

Cummings said it was difficult to get people in government to take Covid seriously at first: “The government itself and No 10 was not operating on a war footing in February [2020] on this, in any way, shape or form. Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.”

He said he had been bogged down with the “HS2 nightmare” and cabinet reshuffle, and then Johnson went on holiday for two weeks – so a “sense of urgency” only emerged at the end of that month.

Painting a picture of what it was like in No 10 as realisation dawned that tougher restrictions would be required, Cummings said 12 March was a “completely surreal day”.

In the morning, national security advisers revealed “Trump wants us to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East tonight,” while the prime minister’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, was enraged about a story in the Times concerning her dog, Dilyn, and “demanding that the press office deal with that”.

“So, we have this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying: ‘Are we going to bomb Iraq?’, part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine and the prime minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.”

Herd immunity – ‘it was the plan’

Herd immunity “was the whole logic of all the discussions in January and February and early March [2020]”, Cummings said.

“The whole plan was based on the assumption that it was a certainty there would be no vaccines in 2020. So the logic was … if it’s unconstrained it will come in and there will be a sharp peak like that and it will completely swamp everything and huge disaster. The logical approach therefore is to introduce measures which delay that peak arriving and which push it down below the capacity of the health system.”

He added: “I am completely baffled as to why No 10 is trying to deny herd immunity was the plan … Hancock himself, the chief scientist [Sir Patrick Vallance] and CMO [Prof Chris Whitty] were all briefing senior journalists … that this is what the plan is.”

Boris Johnson – Covid is a ‘scare story’

Cummings said Johnson regarded Covid as “just a scare story” and “the new swine flu” at the start of 2020 – adding he was “about a thousand times too obsessed with the media”.

Cummings described how officials had talked of getting the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, to inject Johnson live on TV with the coronavirus “so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of”.

He said 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” and that Johnson “made some terrible decisions, got things wrong, and then constantly U-turned on everything”.

“I would say, if you took anybody at random from the top 1% of competent people in country, and presented them with the situation, they would have behaved differently to how the prime minister behaved.

“There’s this great misunderstanding people have that because it [Covid] nearly killed him, therefore he must have taken it seriously. But in fact, after the first lockdown, he was cross with me and others with what he regarded as basically pushing him into the first lockdown. His argument after that was: ‘I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open’ … He essentially thought that he’d been gamed on the numbers of the first lockdown.”

The health secretary, Matt Hancock – ‘he should have been fired’

“There’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect. I think the secretary of state for health is certainly one of those people.”

Cummings said he “should’ve been fired for at least 15-20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly”.

Johnson “came close to removing him in April but just fundamentally wouldn’t do it”, the ex-aide added.

He said Hancock had also blamed the NHS England chief, Sir Simon Stevens, and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, for PPE (personal protective equipment) problems.

Cummings said he asked the cabinet secretary to investigate, who came back and said: “It is completely untrue, I have lost confidence in the secretary of state’s honesty in these meetings”.

Hospital patients being discharged into care homes

Cummings said he was assured people would be tested before leaving hospital for a care home – and it was only after he and Johnson had been ill that they realised that “only happened very partially and sporadically”.

“Obviously, many, many people who should have been tested were not tested, and they went back to care homes and then infected people and it spread like wildfire inside the care homes. Also the care homes didn’t have the PPE to deal with it and they didn’t have the testing for the staff, so you had this cascading series of crises – like a domino effect, rippling out through the system.”

PPE procurement – ‘wading through treacle’

Cummings said he was told in meetings that vital masks and gloves were being sent by sea because it is “what we always do”. He said: “Hang on, we are going to have a peak in the NHS around about mid-April, and you are shipping things from China that are going to arrive in months’ time and all the aeroplanes are not flying? Leave this meeting, commandeer the planes, fly them to China, drop them at the nearest airfield, pick up our stuff, fly it back.

“At this point you had Trump sending the CIA round trying to gazump everybody on PPE.

“The whole system was just like wading through treacle.”

Vaccines and tests – promises were ‘incredibly stupid’

Cummings said the vaccine procurement worked better than would normally happen under the “dysfunctional system”, due to Kate Bingham being in obvious charge: “She picked the team, she did a good job of picking the team and everyone knew they were working for her,” he said.

On testing, Cummings said Hancock’s promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was “incredibly stupid”. He said: “In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say: ‘Look at me and my 100k target’. It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”

Arguments about a second lockdown – ‘we are making same mistakes’

Cummings explained how he and health officials sought to persuade Johnson to go for a “circuit breaker” lockdown in September, but failed.

“I said, listen, we all lived through the March horror, and I’ve got a dreadful feeling that we’re making the same mistake …

“The prime minister wasn’t persuaded about this. I said to him: ‘The whole lesson of what happened before is that by delaying the lockdown, it came later, it had to be more severe, it had to last longer. The economic disruption was even worse anyway, and we’ll have killed God knows how many thousands of people in the meantime’… [In the end] the prime minister decided no, and said, basically, we’re just going to hit and hope.

“Fundamentally the prime minister and I did not agree about Covid, after March. After March he thought the lesson to be learned is: ‘We shouldn’t have done a lockdown, we should have restored the economy, I should have been the mayor in Jaws’. I thought that perspective was completely mad.”

Cummings added that other government figures, including Sunak, also believed further lockdowns could be necessary – “but nobody could find a way around the problem of the prime minister, just like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”.

Open borders – ‘it’s madness’

“Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy because the prime minister never wanted a proper border policy. Repeatedly, in meeting after meeting, I and others said: ‘All we have to do is download the Singapore or Taiwan documents in English and impose them here.’ We’re imposing all of these restrictions on people domestically but people can see that everyone is coming in from infected areas: it’s madness, it’s undermining the whole message that we should take it seriously.”

“At that point he was back to: ‘Lockdown was all a terrible mistake, I should’ve been the mayor of Jaws, we should never have done lockdown one, the travel industry will all be destroyed if we bring in a serious border policy’. To which, of course, some of us said there’s not going to be a tourism industry in the autumn if we have a second wave, the whole logic was completely wrong.”

Himself – ‘I failed’

Cummings did not spare himself from criticism.

“The truth is, senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has the right to expect in a crisis like this. When the public needed us most the government failed.”

Explaining how he tried to encourage a switch from pursuing herd immunity to full lockdown, he said: “It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan … I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.”

“There’s no doubt that he [Boris Johnson] 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.”

“I apologise for not acting earlier and if I had acted earlier then lots of people might still be alive.”

The Durham lockdown trip

Cummings said that he had not told the whole story last year, saying he did not explain that he wanted to send his wife and son out of London due to security threats to their London home. In fact, he did detail some of this when he defended himself at a Downing Street press conference.

“The prime minister and I agreed that because of the security things, we would basically just stonewall the story and not say anything about it …. I ended up giving the whole rose garden thing [the press conference at No 10] where what I said was true, but we left out a kind of crucial part of it all. And it just … the whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is – and then it undermined public confidence in the whole thing.”

On his much-questioned explanation of driving to the local beauty spot of Barnard Castle to check his eyesight: “If I was going to make up a story I would have come up with a hell of a lot better one than that one, right? It’s such a weird story.”

Unnecessary deaths as a result of government decisions

Cummings was frank in his assessment: “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.”

A public inquiry – it should happen now

“There is absolutely no excuse for delay,” he said. “The longer it’s delayed, the more people will rewrite memories, the more documents will go astray. The whole thing will become cancerous … We’ve got to [learn lessons so we] have a system in place [for the next potential pandemic] where we go: ‘Holy Lord, new Ebola thing. Right MRNA companies, Pfizer – where’s the vaccine? Right, 10,000 people – what’s the price?’”

“There’s absolutely no excuse for delaying that. A lot of the reasons for why that happened are still in place.”

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak

Cummings denied that Sunak tried to block lockdowns: “There have been stories that he was a kind of block and tried to throw mud in the gears and him and the Treasury were trying to stop the first lockdown.

“What I would say was there were powerful voices in the Treasury saying the real danger is economic, but in meetings that I had, the chancellor never tried to stop that happening.”

Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary

In mid-March, Cummings said Sedwill suggested the prime minister go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying: “It’s like the old chickenpox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September.”

Scientific advisers

Cummings called Vallance a “good scientist” and credited him with the idea of creating a vaccine taskforce, led outside the Department of Health and Social Care. He claimed Vallance and Whitty were used by Hancock as “shields for himself”, and said a lot of behavioural scientists were “charlatans”.

The media – ‘I did talk to people’

Cummings said the “main” journalist he spoke to in 2020 was the BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg. “Because I was in the room for certain crucial things, I could give guidance to her on certain very big stories.” He gave the example of guiding her away from a rumour circulating in mid-March that a London-only lockdown was being considered, with tanks deployed to the M25, which was incorrect. “Yes – I did talk to people unauthorised,” he admitted.

The political system – ‘it’s crackers’

“It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position, in my personal opinion. I’m not smart, I’ve not built great things in the world. 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. It’s also the case that there are wonderful people inside the civil service, there are brilliant, brilliant officials all over the place. But the system tends to weed them out from senior management jobs. And the problem in this crisis was very much lions led by donkeys over and over again.”

Carrie Symonds

Cummings said Boris Johnson’s partner was “desperate to get rid of me and all my team”.

“My resignation was definitely connected to the fact that the prime minister’s girlfriend was trying to change a whole bunch of different appointments in No 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs. In particular, she was trying to overturn the outcome of an official process about hiring for a particular job, in a way that was not only completely unethical but was also clearly illegal. I thought the whole process about how the prime minister was behaving at that point was appalling.”

Marcus Rashford

The conversation drifted at times into other issues of media management.

Cummings said that despite Lee Cain, the former head of communications in No 10, telling Johnson twice not to pick a fight with Rashford: “The prime minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice. After that everyone says: ‘Oh, your communications is stupid’. No, what’s stupid was picking a fight with Rashford over school meals, and what should have happened is just getting the school meals policy right. So it’s easy to blame communications for bad policy and bad decision-making.”


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