Factbox-Mistakes, secrecy, no preparation: ex-aide attacks Johnson on COVID
LONDON (Reuters) -Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief adviser until late last year, accused his former boss on Wednesday of being unfit for office and of failing Britain by allowing tens of thousands to die “unnecessarily” of COVID-19.
Since leaving his job, Cummings has become one of Johnson’s most vocal critics, calling his leadership in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last year “catastrophic”.
Cummings, who was part of Johnson’s senior team during that period, accused the prime minister in testimony to a parliamentary committee of changing his mind “10 times a day” and health officials of making ill-judged decisions about the virus.
Johnson, in parliament, rejected the allegations saying: “I don’t think anybody could credibly accuse this government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed, at any point. We have worked flat out to minimise loss of life.”
His spokesman said the government would not be engaging with every accusation made by Cummings.
Following are the main charges Cummings made against Johnson’s government to a parliamentary committee.
“What happened is fundamentally the prime minister and I did not agree about COVID.”
Talking about his resignation, Cummings said: “Fundamentally I regarded him (Johnson) 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. And he had the view that he was prime minister and I should just be doing as he wanted me to.”
Cummings accused Johnson’s government of reacting too slowly to the spread of the novel coronavirus:
“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.”
“And I’d 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.”
UNPREPARED IN EARLY 2020
“Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February on (COVID) in any way shape or form. Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.
“It wasn’t until the last week of February that there was really any sort of sense of urgency, I would say … in terms of Number 10 (the prime minister’s office) and Cabinet.”
LATE TO LOCKDOWN
Cummings said the situation in Downing Street on March 12 last year had been “almost surreal”, and that plans to tackle the pandemic had competed for attention with Johnson’s fiancee’s anger about a newspaper article about their dog.
He said Johnson had been told on March 14 that he needed to implement a lockdown, but the government did not have a plan.
“On the 14th we said to the prime minister: ‘You are going to have to lock down’ – but there is no lockdown plan, it doesn’t exist,” Cummings said.
He quoted Helen MacNamara, former deputy cabinet secretary, as saying: “We are absolutely fucked … I think we’re going to kill thousands of people”.
Johnson announced a lockdown on March 23.
Asked by opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer in parliament whether he accepted Cummings’ central allegations, and that his inaction had led to needless deaths, Johnson said “No”.
PLAYING DOWN THE VIRUS
Cummings said Johnson had not initially taken the pandemic seriously.
“The basic thought was that in February the prime minister regarded this as just a scare story … he described it as the ‘new swine flu’,” Cummings said.
“The view of various officials inside Number 10 was ‘If we have the prime minister chairing COBR (civil contingencies committee) meetings and he just tells everyone “it’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, and I’m going to get (Chief Medical Officer) Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus” … that would … not help’.”
Cummings accused the health ministry of believing that it was necessary to encourage herd immunity – where enough people have had the virus and developed resistance to protect those who have not. He said the ministry believed that if the spread of the coronavirus was suppressed over the summer of last year, it would rear its head again in the winter, putting the health service under worse strain.
So, in March last year, Cummings said the government had been aiming to establish herd immunity.
He also said the cabinet secretary of the time had urged Johnson to go on television and explain herd immunity by describing it “like the old chickenpox parties”.
The government has repeatedly said that herd immunity has never been an aim of its policy or part of its coronavirus strategy.
“CRACKERS” THAT JOHNSON IS PM
Cummings said there were thousands of people who could offer better leadership than the two men who vied to run Britain in the 2019 parliamentary election – Johnson and the then-leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn.
“It’s completely crackers that someone like me should have been there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there,” he told a parliamentary committee.
Cummings criticised the secrecy around decisions made by a group of top scientific advisers.
“I think there’s absolutely no doubt at all that the process by which (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) SAGE (took decisions) was secret, and overall the whole thinking around the strategy was secret, was an absolutely catastrophic mistake because it meant there wasn’t proper scrutiny,” he said.
He said the process of deciding how to tackle the spread of coronavirus in the early days was “closed”, describing it as a “groupthink bubble” that struggled to change course.
HEALTH MINISTER “LIES”
Cummings said health minister Matt Hancock should have been fired for lying in government meetings on COVID-19.
“I think that the Secretary of State for Health (Hancock), 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,” Cummings said.
He listed occasions when he believed Hancock had lied, including in telling told Johnson and Cummings that the supply of personal protective equipment against the virus was fine when it was not.
Johnson’s spokesman said the prime minister had full confidence in Hancock.
Cummings said that people with COVID-19 had been sent from hospital to care homes for the elderly without being tested, making a “complete nonsense” of assertions that they would be shielded.
“Hancock told us in the Cabinet Room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes,” he said.
“We only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened. Now all the government rhetoric was ‘We put a shield around care homes and blah blah’ – it’s complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with COVID back to the care homes.”
NOT TAKING ADVICE
Speaking about a decision to bring in a new lockdown late last year, Cummings said Johnson had ignored advice that he should do so quickly. “He was just making his own decision that he was going to ignore the advice.”
He described Johnson as saying he should have been “the mayor from ‘Jaws’”, who kept the beaches open in the movie despite shark attacks, after feeling he had been forced into the first lockdown. He repeated an earlier allegation that he had heard the prime minister say he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown.
Cummings admitted his trip to northern England at the height of Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown had been a grave mistake.
He apologised, saying: “That whole episode was definitely a major disaster for the government and the COVID policy.”
Cummings had previously defended a drive he undertook, in a further breach of lockdown rules, as a way of testing his eyesight. On Wednesday he said: “I wish I’d never heard of Barnard Castle and I wish I’d never gone, and I wish the whole nightmare never happened.”
Cummings said that, after April 2020, Johnson had prioritised the economy over public health after April.
He also said the British government and Bank of England had been worried in early 2020 that bond markets could turn against them due to the huge sums being borrowed to finance the response to the pandemic.
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