Painting a devastating portrait of complacency and incompetence at the heart of government as Covid arrived in Britain, he alleged:
- Helen MacNamara, the former deputy cabinet secretary, marched into a meeting to report that an official had just told her: “I’ve been told for years that there was a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We’re in huge trouble.” He said she carried on: “I’ve come through here to tell the Prime Minister’s office, quote, ‘I think we are absolutely f**ked. I think this country is headed for disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people’.”
- Boris Johnson treated it as a “scare story” and dismissed Covid as the “new swine flu” in February, referring to a previous outbreak that fizzled out.
- Mr Johnson was distracted by “his girlfriend going completely crackers about something trivial”, referring to a press story about their dog Dilyn.
- The PM was so blasé that he wanted to be injected with the virus on live television by Professor Chris Whitty to show it was harmless.
- Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked for “lying”, he claimed. “He should have been fired for at least 15, 20, things, including lying to everybody in multiple occasions, in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.”
- Mr Cummings said the Cabinet Secretary at the time, Sir Mark Sedwill, also wanted Mr Hancock to be sacked.
- Sir Mark spoke of the virus being able to spread like “chickenpox parties”. Whitehall officials were on skiing holidays in February and the PM took a two-week vacation after the pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation.
- Cobra, the special Cabinet emergency committee, constantly leaked and action was delayed. He said behavioural scientists gave bad advice and there were “a lot of charlatans”.
- In one of his most stinging attacks, Mr Cummings claimed that government talk of putting a shield around care homes was “complete nonsense”. He said: “Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”
He began his account with a dramatic personal apology to bereaved families for his own part in a failure that led to thousands of needless deaths.
“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.
“When the public needed us most, the Government failed. 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 said.
The health and science select committees are holding a joint inquiry into the handling of the pandemic and what lessons can be learned.
Science committee chair Greg Clark asked him how soon he became alarmed following the outbreak of Covid-19 in China.
Mr Cummings said the levels of worry were low in Western countries for weeks. “I think it’s in retrospect completely obvious that many institutions failed on this early question,” he said.
By January 25, he was sufficiently alarmed to raise it in the Prime Minister’s private office and suggest a review of planning and a visit to Porton Down, the military laboratory.
He raised it with Mr Hancock directly in texts and in person. “I said to Matt Hancock, ‘Where are we in terms of scanning the pandemic operations plans, are we completely up to speed on this? Is it resourced the way that it should be?’”
Mr Hancock replied: “We’ve got full plans up to and including pandemic levels regularly refreshed.”
Mr Cummings said he regrets that he “did not follow up” and “push” or set up a special team to test the plans.
By the end of February he said he realised the plans were “completely hollow”. “Lot of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February,” he complained, when asked if No 10 was by then on a war footing.
On the question of whether the Government secretly had a plan to target herd immunity, Mr Cummings did not go as far as some reports predicted. He said herd immunity was “seen as an inevitability” across Whitehall.
He told MPs: “It’s important to bear in mind on this whole herd immunity point, obviously no one is saying that they want this to happen, the point is it was seen as an inevitability — you will either have herd immunity by September after a single peak or you will have herd immunity by January with a second peak, those are the only two options that we have.
“That was the whole logic of all of the discussions in January and in February and early March.”
He dismissed Matt Hancock’s claim on March 15 last year that herd immunity was not part of the Government’s plan as “completely wrong”.
Two hours before the committee met, Mr Cummings stepped up his attack by publishing a photograph he said proved the Government attempted a strategy that would have “broken” the NHS.
He posted on Twitter an image of a whiteboard covered in scrawl and set up in the Prime Minister’s study at Downing Street.
He wrote: “First sketch of Plan B, PM study, Fri 13/3 eve.” He alleged that it showed: “NB: Plan A ‘our plan’ breaks NHS, >4k p/day dead min.”
In other words, the favoured plan would have caused 4,000 deaths a day and overwhelmed hospitals.
He or his friends briefed this morning’s papers that Mr Johnson referred to Covid as “kung flu”.
A fightback by government loyalists against the maverick former aide also began before the hearing.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, called Mr Cummings a “professor of hindsight” and suggested his account was not reliable. “I will leave it to others to decide the relative reliability of this witness,” he told Good Morning Britain.
He dismissed Mr Cummings’s appearance at a joint heath and science committee as a “sideshow” and suggested he “has his own agenda”.
Mr Shapps said he never heard the PM say “kung flu” or suggest he get himself deliberately infected.
He told Sky News: “We were making decisions under [an] unprecedented situation. There’s no rule book or text book.”