Boris Johnson believed old people should be let contract Covid-19 to protect economy, inquiry hears

Former PM’s adviser Dominic Cumming says ‘dysfunctional system’ led vulnerable to be ‘appallingly neglected’ in 2020

The UK was hit by “widespread failure” in its response to Covid-19, an official inquiry into the pandemic has heard, with Boris Johnson believing old people should contract the virus to protect the economy and wavering on whether to impose lockdowns.

Dominic Cummings, former chief adviser to the then prime minister, said in evidence on Tuesday that a “dysfunctional system” of state led vulnerable groups to be “appallingly neglected” in March 2020.

“Overall, it’s widespread failure but pockets ... doing excellent work,” he said, adding that the Cabinet Office, the department that runs the machinery of government, was a “dumpster fire” and that senior officials going on holiday in February 2020 was “pretty insane”.

His remarks came as the inquiry was shown diary entries from 2020 in which Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, wrote that Mr Johnson appeared “obsessed with older people accepting their fate” and considered the virus to be “just Nature’s way of dealing with old people”.


In December 2020, weeks before England entered a third national lockdown, Sir Patrick wrote: “Chief whip [Mark Spencer] says ‘I think we should let the old people get it and protect others’. PM says ‘a lot of my backbenchers think that and I must say I agree with them’.”

In a WhatsApp message to Lee Cain, then Downing Street’s head of communications, in October 2020, weeks before England’s second lockdown, Mr Johnson wrote: “I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on Covid fatalities. The median age is 82-81 for men and 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer.”

He added: “It shows we don’t go for nationwide lockdown.”

The entries and the messages add to the string of damaging revelations from former top officials about Britain’s response to the global health crisis under Mr Johnson, who served as prime minister between 2019 and 2022.

The inquiry is examining the British government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including the UK’s preparedness and senior decision-making, and is due to run until the summer of 2026.

In private messages from March 2020 that were seen by the inquiry, Mr Cain said Mr Johnson did not believe Covid was a “big deal” and thought “his main danger [was] talking [the] economy into a slump”.

Mr Cain on Tuesday described Mr Johnson as “challenging ... to work with” because he would “oscillate” and “take a decision from the last person in the room”, echoing comments by the government’s most senior civil servant about Mr Johnson changing “strategic direction every day” as the crisis took hold.

Mr Cain told the inquiry that Mr Johnson’s announcement of a full UK lockdown on March 23rd came more than a week after his most senior advisers backed the move on March 14th as “the only strategy which could suppress the spread of Covid-19, save the NHS from collapse and ultimately buy the government more time”.

Mr Cain admitted the government got its assessment of the virus “wrong” in early 2020, having initially considered the UK “incredibly well prepared, and that a lack of diversity in Mr Johnson’s top team had led to “blind spots” in policymaking.

He said no “warning flares” had been communicated to Mr Johnson at the beginning of the year to suggest the UK was not well prepared.

In a WhatsApp message on March 3rd, 2020, Mr Cain told Mr Cummings: “He [Mr Johnson] doesn’t think it’s a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking economy into a slump.”

But in further messages shown to the inquiry, Mr Cummings told Mr Johnson there were “big problems coming” as the Cabinet Office was “terrifyingly shit”.

The inquiry was also shown messages in which Mr Cummings told Mr Johnson that members of his Cabinet were “useless f**kpigs’” and accused the ex-health secretary Matt Hancock of being “unfit for this job” and obsessed “with media bullshit”.

“Still no f**king serious testing in care homes his uselessness is still killing God knows how many,” Mr Cummings wrote of Mr Hancock.

Mr Cummings denied he had acted with “offence and misogyny” while working in Number 10 after messages showed he had vowed to “personally handcuff” Helen MacNamara, then the civil service’s head of ethics, “and escort her from the building”.

In messages shown to the inquiry, he said: “I don’t care how it’s done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c**t.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023