Cummings says tens of thousands died from UK Covid failures

Former adviser to Boris Johnson tells inquiry that prime minister is unfit for office

Boris Johnson's former adviser Dominic Cummings has described the prime minister as unfit for office and claimed that the British government's failures were responsible for tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths.

During seven hours of testimony before MPs from the Commons science and health committees, Mr Cummings said health secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked for lying to colleagues and to the public.

“The truth is that senior ministers, officials, advisers like me, fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this. When the public needed us most, we failed. And I’d like to say to all the families of those who have died unnecessarily, how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made, and my own mistakes,” he said.

Mr Cummings, who was campaign director for Vote Leave in 2016, was Mr Johnson's most senior adviser in Downing Street until he resigned last November following a power struggle with the prime minister's fiancée Carrie Symonds. He said Mr Johnson took little interest in coronavirus in January and February last year and initially viewed it as a "scare story" and the "new swine flu".


‘Going crackers’

Mr Cummings said he urged Mr Johnson on March 12th last year to change course and introduce a lockdown but said that on the same day, Donald Trump was asking for Britain's help on a bombing mission in the Middle East and Ms Symonds was exercised about an unfriendly newspaper story about her dog.

“Part of the building was saying ‘are we going to bomb Iraq’, part of the building was arguing about whether or not we are going to do quarantine, the prime minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial,” he said.

“Thank God the attorney general persuaded the prime minister not to go ahead with the bombing campaign.”

Mr Cummings said there was no plan for dealing with a pandemic like coronavirus, quoting deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara as saying: “’I think we are absolutely f****d. I think this country’s in a disaster and we are going to kill thousands of people”.

He accused Mr Hancock of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” and of lying repeatedly to Mr Johnson, other ministers and civil servants.

“I think the secretary of state for health should have 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,” he said.

“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.”

Mr Cummings said that, despite his own hospitalisation with coronavirus, Mr Johnson regretted the first lockdown last year and strongly resisted introducing a second one last September when cases began to rise again. He said there was no meaningful consultation with the cabinet before the prime minister relented and agreed to introduce a second lockdown.

“There may have been a cabinet meeting, but that was just for show, not as a relevant part of the decision-making process,” he said.

Avoidable deaths

Mr Cummings said his relationship with the prime minister deteriorated after the October lockdown because Mr Johnson knew his aide blamed him for the delay and the consequent avoidable deaths. He left Downing Street in November following a dispute over who should fill key positions around the prime minister.

“The heart of the problem was fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions and push other things through against his wishes. He had the view that he was prime minister and I should just be doing what he wanted me to,” he said.

Asked about Mr Cummings’s claims during prime minister’s questions, Mr Johnson said nobody could accuse his government of complacency in the face of the pandemic.

“The handling of this pandemic has been one of the most difficult things this country has had to do for a very long time but 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 the scale has been appallingly difficult,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times