Boris Johnson believed coronavirus was like “swine flu” and people died unnecessarily because of Government failings during the pandemic, Dominic Cummings has told MPs.
The Prime Minister’s former aide apologised to the public, saying that ministers, officials and advisers had fallen “disastrously short” of the standards they should expect in a crisis.
Mr Cummings said the Prime Minister was more concerned about the impact on the economy than the need to curb the spread of coronavirus in the weeks leading up to the first lockdown.
And he was scathing about the response of the Department of Health and Social Care, claiming Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been fired.
The former adviser, who left Downing Street last year after a behind-the-scenes power struggle, told the MPs: “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.”
In a series of explosive claims, Mr Cummings said:
– The Government was not operating on a “war footing” in February 2020 as the global crisis mounted, with the Prime Minister on holiday and “lots of key people were literally skiing”.
– Mr Johnson thought Covid-19 was just a “scare story” and the “new swine flu” and it was suggested chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty should inject him with the virus on live TV.
– Herd immunity from people catching the disease was thought to be inevitable because there was no plan to try to suppress the spread of the virus.
– Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill told the Prime Minister to go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying “it’s like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September”.
Mr Cummings described his mounting panic about the situation in March 2020, with no plan in place for a lockdown or measures to protect the most vulnerable.
He said the country should have locked down in the first week of March 2020 at the latest but the “official logic” even on March 17 was that this would only cause a peak of the virus later on, potentially in the winter when the NHS would already be under pressure.
Mr Cummings claimed the Government’s delay in locking down and lack of an action plan was similar to sci-fi movie Independence Day, in which the US is devastated by a surprise alien invasion, and compared his data expert colleague Ben Warner to Jeff Goldblum’s scientist in the film whose warnings were ignored.
He said he was concerned about the “groupthink” of Government scientists and officials which led to the strategy to control but not halt the spread of the virus.
The former aide left Downing Street in November 2020 following a power struggle behind the scenes involving Mr Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds.
Giving evidence to the Commons health and science committees, Mr Cummings suggested she had been part of the problem during March 2020.
On March 12 he warned there were “big problems coming” if self-isolation measures were not announced immediately but the Government was focused on other issues – a “completely trivial” story about the prime ministerial pet dog Dilyn.
“The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that,” Mr Cummings said.
Mr Cummings said that on the evening of March 13 it was realised that a meeting would need to be held with Mr Johnson to explain “we’re going to have to ditch the whole official plan, we’re heading for the biggest disaster this country has seen since 1914”.
He praised deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, who also voiced concerns about the lack of a plan, claiming she told him “I think we are absolutely f*****, I think this country is headed for disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people”.
Mr Cummings said he told her: “I think you’re right. I think it is a disaster.”
He said that on March 14, the Prime Minister was told: “You are going to have to lock down.”
Mr Johnson has been criticised for missing five Cobra meetings in the early stages of the pandemic, but Mr Cummings suggested that may have been part of a plan because he did not take the looming crisis seriously.
“The view of various officials inside No 10 was – if we have the Prime Minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of’ – that would not help actually serious planning,” he said.
The first lockdown was finally implemented on March 23.
While Mr Cummings was giving evidence, Mr Johnson was facing MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Prime Minister said: “The handling of this pandemic has been one of the most difficult things this country has had to do for a very long time and none of the decisions have been easy.
“To go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing for a country, to deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult, and we have at every stage tried to minimise loss of life, to save lives, to protect the NHS and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can.”
In response to Mr Cummings’ “swine flu” claim, the Prime Minister said: “I don’t think anybody could credibly accuse this Government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point.”
Under questioning from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, the Prime Minister did not deny a suggestion that he said words to the effect of “Covid was only killing 80-year-olds” as he resisted a second lockdown.
Mr Johnson said that would be a matter for the public inquiry to look into but “I am absolutely confident that we took the decisions in the best interests of the British people”.