Matt Hancock’s ‘lies’ according to Cummings
Dominic Cummings claimed in his bombshell committee evidence that there were ‘numerous’ examples of Matt Hancock lying during the pandemic.
He gave four main examples – all of which Mr Hancock has made clear he rejects.
‘Lie’ 1: Hospital patients were being tested for Covid before they went back to care homes
On care homes, Mr Cummings told MPs Government talk of putting a shield around care homes was ‘complete nonsense’.
‘We were told categorically in March (by Mr Hancock) that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.
‘Now while the Government rhetoric was we have put a shield around care homes and blah blah blah, it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.’
‘Lie’ 2: Patients were getting treatment they needed in first peak
Mr Cummings alleged Mr Hancock lied about everybody getting the treatment they deserved in the first peak when ‘many people were left to die in horrific circumstances’.
Asked to provide evidence of the Health Secretary’s lying, the former chief aide to the Prime Minister told the Commons committee: ‘There are numerous examples. I mean in the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required.
‘He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.’
‘Lie’ 3: Pandemic plans were up to scratch
Mr Cummings said that assurances given to him by Mr Hancock in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant ‘were basically completely hollow’.
The former chief aide to the Prime Minister told the Commons committee he received a response from Health Secretary Matt Hancock assuring: ‘We’ve got full plans up to and including pandemic levels regularly prepared and refreshed, CMOs and epidemiologists, we’re stress testing now, it’s our top tier risk register, we have an SR bid before this.’
Mr Cummings told the committee: ‘I would like to stress and apologise for the fact that it is true that I did this but I did not follow up on this and push it the way I should’ve done.
‘We were told in No 10 at the time that this is literally top of the risk register, this has been planned and there’s been exercises on this over and over again, everyone knows what to do.
‘And it’s sort of tragic in a way, that someone who wrote so often about running red teams and not trusting things and not digging into things, whilst I was running red teams about lots of other things in government at this time, I didn’t do it on this.
‘If I had said at the end of January, we’re going to take a Saturday and I want all of these documents put on the table and I want it all gone through and I want outside experts to look at it all, then we’d have figured out much, much earlier that all the claims about brilliant preparations and how everything was in order were basically completely hollow, but we didn’t figure this out until the back end of February.’
‘Lie’ 4: PPE supplies were hampered by NHS and Treasury
Mr Cummings made an allegation that Mr Hancock squirmed over shortages of PPE during the pandemic.
He claimed that in mid-April, just before he and the PM were diagnosed with having Covid, Mr Hancock gave assurances that ‘everything is fine with PPE, we’ve got it all covered, etc, etc’.
However, when Mr Cummings returned to work he discovered there was a ‘disaster over PPE and how we were actually completely short, hospitals all over the country were running out’.
‘The Secretary of State said in that meeting this is the fault of Simon Stevens, this is the fault of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it’s not my fault, they’ve blocked approvals on all sorts of things. I said to the cabinet secretary, please investigate this and find out if it’s true,’ Mr Cummings claimed.
‘The Cabinet Secretary came back to me and said it’s completely untrue, I’ve lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings. The Cabinet Secretary said that to me and the Cabinet Secretary said that to the Prime Minister.’
… And the alleged hampering of test & trace to hit ‘incredibly stupid’ daily testing target
Mr Cummings took aim at Mr Hancock over his introduction of a target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day last summer.
‘This was an incredibly stupid thing to do because we already had that goal internally,’ Mr Cummings said.
‘What then happened when I came back around the 13th was I started getting calls and No 10 were getting calls saying Hancock is interfering with the building of the test and trace system because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month.
‘We had half the Government with me in No 10 calling around frantically saying do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term.
‘And we had Hancock calling them all saying down tools on this, do this, hold tests back so I can hit my target.’
Mr Cummings claimed that Mr Hancock should have been ‘fired for that thing alone’.
‘The whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’,’ the former aide said.
‘It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.
Matt Hancock today claimed he only promised to ‘build testing capacity’ after Dominic Cummings accused him of ‘lying’ to the PM about whether residents would be screened on leaving hospital.
The Health Secretary finally addressed the issue directly as he was repeatedly grilled on the allegations from the maverick former No10 chief at a Downing Street briefing this evening.
Pressed on whether he had told Boris Johnson and others in government early in the pandemic that checks on discharge would happen, Mr Hancock said: ‘My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.’
But he insisted ‘it wasn’t possible’ to carry out the testing until the capacity had been built.
He also tried to bat away questions by suggesting they are best considered in the public inquiry, which will not begin until next year. ‘There will be a time when we can go into this in detail,’ he said.
Earlier, Mr Hancock told the Commons that Mr Cummings’ claims during an explosive committee hearing yesterday – including that he lied repeatedly, failed care home residents and should have been ‘sacked daily’ – were ‘not true’ and he had been ‘straight with people’.
However, he was challenged on the issue again after he seemed to avoid responding to the specific allegation about care homes – where thousands died when coronavirus ran riot in the initial phase of the pandemic.
Mr Cummings said Mr Hancock ‘categorically’ told colleagues in March that people would be tested before being returned to homes.
But the former aide said they ‘subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened’.
Mr Hancock was asked if he could say he protected care homes, and was also asked if he made the commitment on testing.
He replied: ‘We worked as hard as we could to protect people who live in care homes, and of course those who live in care homes are some of the most vulnerable to this disease because by its nature it attacks and has more of an impact on older people.
‘Now when it comes to the testing of people as they left hospital and went into care homes, we committed to building the testing capacity to allow that to happen.
‘Of course it then takes time to build testing capacity.
‘In fact, one of the critical things we did was set the 100,000 target back then to make sure we built that testing capacity and it was very effective in doing so.
‘And then we were able to introduce the policy of testing everybody before going into care homes, but we could only do that once we had the testing capacity which I had to build, because we didn’t have it in this country from the start.
‘We started with a capacity of less than 2,000 in March last year and got to 100,000 tests a day.
‘And we set all of this out at the time in public documents. It’s all a matter of public record.’
On a visit to Colchester hospital earlier, Mr Johnson said the government faced an ‘incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we have taken lightly’ and ‘at every stage we have been governed by a determination to protect life’.
Challenged whether the government’s failures had cost tens of thousands of lives as Mr Cummings claims, he said: ‘No I don’t think so. But, of course, this has been an incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we’ve taken lightly.’
He said the situation in care homes – where more than 40,000 deaths were linked to Covid – was ‘tragic’, but added: ‘We did everything we could to protect the NHS and to protect care homes as well.’
He said: ‘I think it’s important for us to focus on what really matters to the people of this country.
‘I think, if I may say so, that some of the commentary I have heard doesn’t bear any relation to reality.
‘What people want us to get on with is delivering the road map and trying – cautiously – to take our country forward through what has been one of the most difficult periods that I think anybody can remember.’
Summoned to answer an urgent question in the House this morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.
‘I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout.’
Mr Hancock also dismissed Mr Cummings’ criticism of his testing target, saying it was ‘how you get stuff done in government’.
‘I am proud of everyone in my department,’ he said.
In a brutal swipe at the ex-No10 chief, who was ousted from Downing Street in November, he said people can see that over the past six months ‘governing has become a little easier and we have been able to deliver’.
Tory MPs rallied round Mr Hancock in the chamber, with William Wragg slamming the ‘irony’ of criticism from Mr Cummings, and Peter Bone dismissing him as an ‘unelected Spad who broke Covid regulations’. Mr Bone said the premier’s mistake was that he ‘didn’t fire Dominic Cummings early enough’.
Red Wall MP Dehenna Davison also made her feelings clear earlier as she asked a question by video link with a ‘Barnard Castle eye test’ chart in the background.
Mr Hancock will run the gauntlet of the media at a Downing Street press briefing this evening as he tries to brazen out the storm.
Government sources called the onslaught from Mr Cummings a ‘character assassination’ that was ‘not backed by evidence’.
Senior Tories told MailOnline that the former No10 chief was engaged in epic ‘score settling’ and had a ‘selective memory’. ‘He should really have words with whoever was in charge last year,’ one said wryly.
Mr Hancock told the Commons this morning: ‘Every day since I began working on the response to this pandemic last January, I’ve got up each morning and asked: ‘What must I do to protect life?’
‘That is the job of the Health Secretary in a pandemic.
‘We’ve taken an approach of openness, transparency and explanation of both what we know and of what we don’t know.’
He said he had updated the House 60 times during pandemic, and ‘answered questions from colleagues, the media and the public’.
Pressed on whether he had told Boris Johnson and others in government early in the pandemic that checks on discharge would happen, Matt Hancock (pictured) said: ‘My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.’
Matt Hancock told the Commons (left) that the government had been ‘straight with people’ about the challenges that coronavirus posed and the difficult decisions. Dominic Cummings (right) claimed the ‘disastrous’ handling of the pandemic had cost tens of thousands of lives
On a visit to a hospital in Colchester today, Mr Johnson said what happened in care homes was ‘tragic’, but the government ‘did our best to protect the NHS to minimise transmission’
Dominic Cummings’ bombshell evidence
The initial apology: ‘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.’
On the lack of preparation in February 2020: ‘We didn’t act like it was important in February, let alone January…. No10 and the government were not working on a war footing in February, it wasn’t until the last week of February there was any sense of urgency.’
On Boris Johnson’s attitude to Covid: ‘In February the Prime Minister regarded this as just a scare story. He described it as the new swine flu… The view of various officials inside No10 was if we have the PM chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ”it’s swine flu don’t worry about it, I am going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realise it’s nothing to be frightened of”, that would not help actual serious planning.’
On the first lockdown timing: ‘In retrospect it is clear that the official plan was wrong, it is clear that the whole advice was wrong, and I think it is clear that we obviously should have locked down essentially the first week of March at the latest. We certainly should have been doing all of these things weeks before we did, I think it’s unarguable that that is the case.’
On his role in the lockdown delay: ‘There’s no doubt in retrospect that yes, it was a huge failure of mine and I bitterly regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button earlier then I did. In retrospect there’s no doubt I was wrong not to.’
On No10 in March 2020: ‘It was like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken and you need a new plan.’
On Boris being distracted by Carrie and Trump: ‘It sounds so surreal couldn’t possibly be true … that day, the Times had run a huge story about the Prime Minister and his girlfriend and their dog. The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that. So we had this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying are we going to bomb Iraq? Part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.’
On the PM missing Cobra meetings: ‘Lots of Cobra meetings are just going through PowerPoint slides and are not massively useful.’
On Health Secretary Matt Hancock: ‘I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve 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. 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. I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired, so did the Cabinet Secretary, so did many other senior people.’
On herd immunity: ‘It is not that people are thinking this is a good thing, it is that it is a complete inevitability, the only real question is one of timing. It’s either going to be by September or it’s herd immunity by January (2021) after a second peak.’
On not cancelling mass sports events like Cheltenham Festival: ‘The official advice at the time (March 2020) was that that a) won’t make much difference to transmission, which seems absolutely bizarre in retrospect, the idea that we would keep mass events going on through this whole thing. But also secondly, it could be actively bad because you’d push people into pubs. Of course no one in the official system in the Department of Health drew the obvious logical conclusion which was well, shouldn’t we be shutting all the pubs as well?’
On Government secrecy: ‘There is no doubt at all that the process by which Sage was secret and overall the whole thinking around the strategy was secret was an absolutely catastrophic mistake, because it meant that there wasn’t proper scrutiny of the assumptions, the underlying logic. Actually Sage agreed with this, when I said on March 11 we are going to have to make all these models public and whatnot, there wasn’t pushback from sage or Patrick Vallance either. Patrick actually agreed with me.’
On Boris v Jeremy Corbyn at the 2019 election: ‘There’s so many thousands and thousands of wonderful people in this country who could provide better leadership than either of those two. And there’s obviously something terribly wrong with the political parties if that’s the best that they can do.’
‘We’ll keep on with this spirit of openness and transparency throughout,’ he said.
‘Sometimes what we’ve had to say hasn’t been easy. We’ve had to level with people when it’s been tough, when things have been going in the wrong direction.
‘And also we’ve learned throughout. We’ve applied that learning both to tackling this pandemic and making sure that we’re as well-prepared in the future as possible.
‘Beyond all this, what matters remains the same – getting vaccinated, getting tested, delivering for our country, overcoming this disease and saving lives, and that is what matters to the British people.’
Pressed by Liberal Democrat Munira Wilson whether he would ‘apologise to the tens of thousands of bereaved family members whose relatives died in care homes’, Mr Hancock replied: ‘It has been an incredibly difficult time for those who work in and live in care homes throughout this pandemic. That’s been true across the world.
‘I want to pay tribute to the staff who work in social care who have done so much.
‘It was of course a difficult challenge, especially at the start when many characteristics of this virus were unknown, and as I’ve answered many times in this House we have published the full details of the approach that we take and we took, and we worked with the care home sector as much as possible to keep people safe and we followed the clinical advice on the appropriate way forward.’
Sent out on to the airwaves this morning, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the public had only heard ‘one side of the story’ from Mr Cummings.
But he appeared to stop short of giving a full-throated defence, refusing to get into ‘specific allegations’ and merely saying Mr Hancock and his department had ‘worked exceptionally hard’.
Professor Neil Ferguson said scientists had become alarmed about the lack of a ‘clear’ government plan in March last year, and it was ‘unarguable’ that 20,000-30,000 lives could have been saved if the first lockdown had been triggered earlier.
‘The epidemic was doubling every three to four days in the weeks 13-23rd March. Had we moved the interventions back a week we would have curtailed that and saved many lives.’
Launching a dramatic bid to bring down the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary yesterday, Mr Cummings blamed a toxic mix of complacency and indecision for the needless deaths.
He told MPs that senior ministers and advisers, including himself, had fallen ‘disastrously short’, adding: ‘When the public needed us most, the Government failed. Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die.’
In an extraordinary seven-hour performance, Mr Cummings launched attacks on Mr Johnson, his fiancée Carrie Symonds and Mr Hancock over their personal conduct during the crisis.
Mr Cummings claimed the Prime Minister was ‘unfit for the job’ and could not lead Britain out of the pandemic.
He said the Health Secretary ‘should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things, including lying’.
He alleged Mr Hancock had lied to the PM over the disastrous policy of not testing older people for Covid before they were discharged from hospital into care homes.
The former No10 aide outlined a series of failings by him and the ‘smoking ruin’ Department for Health, including lying in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant when they were ‘completely hollow’.
Mr Cummings alleged Mr Hancock lied about testing hospital patients for coronavirus before they were sent back into care homes, in a suggestion that thousands died because of his dishonesty.
He also claimed that the Health Secretary lied about people getting the treatment they needed during the first peak last March and April – adding that ‘many people were left to die in horrific circumstances’.
Mr Cummings then accused Mr Hancock of ‘appalling’ behaviour towards chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, saying: ‘He used the whole ‘we’re following the science’ as a way so that he could always say, ‘well if things go wrong, we’ll blame the scientists and it’s not my fault’.’
Downing Street did not deny that Mr Johnson considered sacking the Health Secretary in April last year but insisted the Prime Minister has confidence in him now, as Mr Hancock disputed the allegations.
He suggested that Mr Johnson chose not to fire the Health Secretary at that point because he was allegedly told ‘you should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along’.
PM says ministers ‘did everything we could to protect NHS and care homes’
Boris Johnson today insisted the government did ‘everything we could’ to protect the NHS and care homes in the wake of Dominic Cummings’ onslaught.
On a visit to a hospital in Colchester, the PM insisted the government faced an ‘incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we have taken lightly’.
He said that ‘at every stage we have been governed by a determination to protect life’.
‘We did everything we could to protect the NHS and to protect care homes as well,’ he said.
He added: ‘We put £1.4billion extra into infection control within care homes, we established a care homes action plan, I remember very clearly, to ensure that we tried to stop infection between care homes.
‘We remain very vigilant.’
Responding to Mr Cummings’ claim that he was not a fit person to be leading the country, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think it’s important for us to focus on what really matters to the people of this country.
‘I think, if I may say so, that some of the commentary I have heard doesn’t bear any relation to reality.
‘What people want us to get on with is delivering the road map and trying – cautiously – to take our country forward through what has been one of the most difficult periods that I think anybody can remember.’
Mr Cummings told a joint committee: ‘One thing I can say completely honestly is that I said repeatedly from February/March that if we don’t fire the Secretary of State and get testing into somebody else’s hands, we’re going to kill people and it’s going to be a catastrophe.’
On the claim that Mr Hancock lied, Mr Cummings said: ‘There are numerous examples. In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment they required.
‘He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak. We were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.’
Mr Hancock had also blamed NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens and Chancellor Rishi Sunak for PPE problems.
Mr Cummings said he asked the cabinet secretary to investigate, who came back and said ‘it is completely untrue, I have lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings’.
The former aide said Mr Hancock’s public promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was ‘incredibly stupid’ because it was already an internal goal.
‘In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’.
‘It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.’
Mr Hancock was given strong backing by MPs in the Commons this morning.
Conservative chairman of the Health Committee Jeremy Hunt said that Mr Cummings’ ‘allegations should be treated as unproven’ until he supplies evidence.
He said: ‘At yesterday’s joint select committee hearing, serious allegations were made. We asked for evidence to be provided and until such evidence is provided those allegations should be treated as unproven.
‘In the meantime, we are in the midst of a pandemic and we need the Health Secretary to be doing his job with his customary energy and commitment.’
Tory MP Mike Wood said: ‘There was no manual to guide governments going into this new global pandemic, but most people feel the Government responded as well as anybody could.’
Mr Hancock covered up with a union flag face mask this morning as he left his London home for the Commons
Mr Hancock replied: ‘It is very difficult responding to an unprecedented challenge of this scale, but I think that over the past six months people have seen that governing has become a little easier and we’re being able to deliver.’
Fellow Conservative Cherilyn Mackrory said: ‘Given the gravity of the situation the Government faced at the beginning of the pandemic and considering we now know there was a hugely disruptive force in the form of Dominic Cummings, I’d like to congratulate ministers.’
She added: ‘Can (Mr Hancock) assure me that he will ignore unsubstantiated Westminster gossip and stay focused on delivering the vaccine rollout and our manifesto promises?’
Mr Hancock replied: ‘I think that’s what the public expects us to do.’
On a visit to Bristol today, Keir Starmer tried to turn the screw on the government urging the timing of the public inquiry be brought forward..
‘They are very serious allegations from Dominic Cummings about the chaos and the incompetence of the decision-making in the Government and there are consequences for that in relation to those that died,’ he said.
‘I don’t think Dominic Cummings should have the last word on this and that’s why all the evidence should be put before the committee, the health secretary should answer the allegations and the inquiry should be fast-forwarded.
‘It’s not about taking anyone’s word – it’s about getting to the bottom of it.’
Mr Cummings’ seven-hour appearance before MPs yesterday is already considered one of the most dramatic of all time, but experts have questioned whether his own tattered reputation with the public will lessen the damage his words caused.
He said the Prime Minister had dismissed Covid as a ‘scare story’, leading to delays in bringing in lockdowns, which cost many thousands of lives. And he claimed to have heard Mr Johnson rant that he would rather see dead bodies ‘piled high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown last autumn – a claim the PM has denied.
The former Vote Leave boss also launched a blistering attack on Mr Hancock, accusing him of ‘criminal, disgraceful behaviour’.
Mr Cummings also fired grenades at Ms Symonds. He said she had diverted the Prime Minister’s attention from critical lockdown decisions in March last year by going ‘completely crackers’ about a newspaper story claiming the couple hated their dog, Dilyn. And he claimed she had interfered in a key No 10 appointment in a way that was ‘not only completely unethical but which was also clearly illegal’.
Pushed on whether he would defend Mr Hancock this morning, Mr Jenrick told Sky News: ‘I think the Department for Health and the Health Secretary have worked exceptionally hard over the course of this pandemic.
‘This was an unprecedented situation, it was a national effort involving all parts of Government in all parts of the country.’
In a pointed swipe, Mr Jenrick said Mr Cummings had ‘tried his best’.
‘I worked well with Dominic when he was in government. He tried his best, as I think everybody did, during that period to serve the country to the best of their ability. He’s now left government, and you heard him give his side of events, which he is completely at liberty to do.’
Grilled on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme over whether Mr Cummings is ‘unreliable’, Mr Jenrick said: ‘Well, I’m not going to get into making personal allegations against individuals. I don’t think that’s helpful.
‘I think, as a Government minister, I should be focused on what’s next, how do we continue to respond to this pandemic? That’s what the public want us to do. They do not want us to be obsessing about individual personalities.’
He added: ‘We are getting on as a Government with responding to the remainder of the virus.’
Prof Ferguson was asked during his interview when SAGE determined that a policy of pursuing herd immunity would lead to a vast number of deaths
He said a key meeting was held at Imperial with the NHS and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on March 1 ‘which finalised estimates around health impacts, so the week after that really’.
He said he ‘wasn’t privy to what officials were thinking within Government’, but added: ‘I would say from the scientific side there was increasing concern in the week leading up to the 13th of March about the lack of clear, let’s say, (a) resolved plan of what would happen in the next few days in terms of implementing social distancing.’
Prof Ferguson was also asked how influential Sage was in sparking the lockdown decisions.
He said: ‘I think the key issue… it’s multiple factors, partly the modelling, which had been around for a couple of weeks but became firmer, particularly as we saw data coming in from the UK, and, unfortunately, I think one of the biggest lessons to learn in such circumstances is we really need good surveillance within the country at a much earlier point than we actually had it back in March last year.
‘As we saw the data build up, and it was matching the modelling, even worse than the modelling, let’s say it focused minds within the Government.’
Mr Cummings also fired grenades at Miss Symonds. He said she had diverted the Prime Minister’s attention from critical lockdown decisions in March last year by going ‘completely crackers’ about a newspaper story claiming the couple hated their dog, Dilyn
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove – who was Mr Cummings’ boss for many years – rejected the idea the department’s pandemic plans had been ‘terrifyingly sh**’ early last year.
Mr Gove said: ‘No.’
He added: ‘It was the case that there were plans in place to deal with a pandemic, the most likely pandemic that was anticipated was a flu pandemic and plans, as a number of people have pointed out, for a flu pandemic meant we had in stock a particular set of equipment.
‘It was the nature of the coronavirus pandemic, a nova virus, that meant we had to adjust to the situation and while of course there are important lessons to be learned, and of course there were mistakes that we made, I would say two things.
‘Other western democracies were also faced with these challenges, also were learning in real time about how to deal with them and have also committed, as we have, to different types of public inquiry so appropriate lessons can be learned.’
One ally of Mr Hancock branded Mr Cummings a ‘total hypocrite’ for criticising Mr Hancock’s drive to increase Covid testing, while also saying that initial testing capacity had been woefully inadequate.
The ally flatly denied that Mr Hancock had lied about care home policy, but acknowledged it had taken longer than anyone wanted to introduce testing because of a shortage of capacity.
Mr Cummings also appeared to undermine his own credibility yesterday by changing his explanation for his notorious lockdown-busting trip to Durham at the height of the restrictions last year.
On a day of astonishing political theatre, Mr Cummings:
- Admitted No 10 was ‘not in any way on a war footing’ for Covid in February last year, adding: ‘A lot of key people were literally skiing … the PM was on holiday for two weeks’;
- Claimed Mr Johnson was so unconcerned about Covid that he suggested Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty inject him on live TV;
- Offered an apology to the families of those who ‘died unnecessarily’;
- Said the then Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill had urged Mr Johnson to encourage ‘chicken pox’ parties to spread the virus as part of a herd immunity strategy;
- Claimed the Prime Minister was too distracted by money worries and his impending engagement to focus on the pandemic;
- Complained the Cobra committee ‘leaked like a sieve’, but squirmed when asked about his own role in leaking;
- Described the Cabinet Office’s contingency plan for a pandemic as ‘terrifyingly s***’;
- Fuelled speculation he hopes to return to government if Rishi Sunak becomes PM by heaping praise on the Chancellor;
- Revealed the initial plan for handling Covid would have seen daily deaths top 4,000 a day and led to a collapse in NHS services;
- Alleged the Prime Minister ‘came close’ to sacking Mr Hancock because of failings over testing and PPE;
- Suggested the Government would have been better off ‘with a kind of dictator in charge’.
In one of the most remarkable performances ever seen at a Commons select committee, Mr Cummings painted a picture of a shambolic response to the looming pandemic.
He said that preparations, which were meant to have been a top priority, were close to useless. And he said that ‘groupthink’ meant both ministers and officials believed the public would never accept lockdown measures of the kind seen in China and Taiwan.
Instead, he said, they pursued a policy of trying to slow infections in the hope that the population would develop a degree of herd immunity.
By mid-March, it became clear that the plan would lead to more than 500,000 deaths and overwhelm the NHS for months, leaving it unable to provide even basic services. Mr Cummings said he told Mr Johnson on March 12 – eleven days before the lockdown – that he had to change course and issue an immediate ‘stay at home’ order.
The following day, the deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen Macnamara allegedly 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 the final realisation that the policy was disastrous was ‘like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying ‘The aliens are here and your whole plan is broken, and you need a new plan’.’
In the Commons yesterday, Mr Johnson denied complacency and said: ‘The handling of this pandemic has been one of the most difficult things this country has had to do in a very long time.
‘We have, at every stage, tried to minimise loss of life.’
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer challenged him, saying: ‘Either his former adviser is telling the truth, in which case the Prime Minister should answer the allegations, or the Prime Minister has to suggest that his former adviser is not telling the truth, which raises serious questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment in appointing him in the first place.’de
Tory former minister Tobias Ellwood said the claims made by Mr Cummings were ‘all about score settling’.
Red Wall MP Dehenna Davison also made her feelings clear earlier as she asked a question by video link with a ‘Barnard Castle eye test’ chart in the background
Sent out on to the airwaves today, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the public had only heard ‘one side of the story’ from Mr Cummings
Mr Cummings said that despite the panic, the Government remained obsessed with matters such as a military request from Donald Trump and Carrie Symonds’ anger over reports about her dog Dilyn
Dominic Cummings reveals how the wheels came off inside Number 10: Extraordinary timeline of chaos as coronavirus spread across Britain… before civil servant screamed ‘we’re f*****’ and aides drew up ‘plan B’ on a whiteboard asking ‘who do we not save?’
Dominic Cummings laid out a damning timeline of the battle to convince the Government to lock down in March 2020 and take Covid seriously in his blockbuster testimony to MPs that has seen him savage the UK response.
The No10 adviser turned loose cannon presented a sketch of the ‘Plan B’ he and other Government aides hashed together when they realised Boris Johnson’s original ‘mitigation’ Covid policy was going to kill hundreds of thousands of people.
It asks the chilling question ‘who do we not save?’ and was drawn up on the same day one of the UK’s most senior civil servants marched into the PM’s office and warned ‘there is no plan… we’re absolutely f****d.’
Here is Cummings’s chaotic version of events:
Mr Cummings tweeted a picture of the whiteboard before his explosive grilling from MPs over how Downing St handled the pandemic. He captioned the image: ‘First sketch of Plan B, PM study, Fri 13/3 eve – shown PM Sat 14/4: NB. Plan A ‘our plan’ breaks NHS,>4k p/day dead min.Plan B: lockdown, suppress, crash programs (tests/treatments/vaccines etc), escape 1st AND 2nd wave (squiggly line instead of 1 or 2 peaks)… details later’
Mr Cummings posted another excerpt from a report suggesting that imposing a tough lockdown could merely have caused a second peak at a more dangerous time for the NHS
Dominic Cummings posted a chart claiming that COBR documents had the ‘optimal single peak strategy’ showing 260,000 dead because the system was ‘so confused in the chaos’
Lack of pandemic plans exposed in February – Cummings scrambled to get expert advice
What Cummings said: Cummings said he had urged the Government to look into pandemic preparedness plans at the start of the year after not having any confidence in them after talking to Matt Hancock.
It emerged at the end of February that ‘claims about brilliant preparations and how everything was in order were basically completely hollow,’ he said.
By the beginning of March Cummings was personally convinced and afraid that the situation was out of control and ‘was increasingly being told by people this is going wrong’.
He spent much of the first two weeks of the month, however, ‘having meeting after meeting with people trying to figure out where we were’ instead of ‘pressing the panic button’ and forcing the PM to act.
What was happening in the UK: On January 31, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak – by that time confined mostly to China with cases among travellers in other countries – was a ‘public health emergency of international concern’.
The first cases of coronavirus in the UK were recorded on the same day and, that weekend, the Government started an advertising campaign to encourage people to use tissues and wash their hands more often.
There had been a total of 23 confirmed cases in the UK by the end of February. The first death was recorded on March 6.
Cummings foresaw spiralling outbreak in March but was ‘frightened’ to force Johnson to act
What Cummings said: In early March Cummings said he was personally convinced and afraid that the situation was out of control and ‘was increasingly being told by people this is going wrong’.
He admitted to being ‘incredibly frightened’ of taking an executive decision to tell the Prime Minister the plan needed to change because he claimed many others were not taking the threat as seriously as he was.
At this point, SAGE recommended shielding elderly and vulnerable people, but not more drastic action.
Boris Johnson held a TV press conference on March 3 and encouraged people to wash their hands more often. There had been 51 confirmed Covid cases by that date
What was happening in the UK: Prime Minister Boris Johnson held his first TV press conference – unprecedented for many people in the UK – on March 3, three days before the first Covid death on March 6.
He admitted: ‘It is highly likely we will see a growing number of UK cases’ and said that keeping the country safe was the Government’s ‘overriding priority’.
The PM said people should wash their hands with soap as often as possible for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.
Despite there having been confirmed cases in the country for more than a month, no stricter measures were in place. By March 3 there had been 51 confirmed cases. This doubled to 114 within two days and was at 373 a week later.
March 11: Cummings takes the plunge and piles pressure on Johnson for a lockdown
What Cummings said: It wasn’t until March 11 that Cummings finally took the plunge and worked to convince the Prime Minister to put the country in a lockdown.
He warned that the ‘mitigation’ policy being pursued by No10 would kill thousands and likely hundreds of thousands – this policy had been announced publicly just two days earlier.
In today’s meeting he revealed that, at this point, he was planning to threaten to resign if Mr Johnson didn’t do something more drastic, and said he would have quit the job and held a press conference to reveal that the official plan could kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Over the following week Cummings rammed home the message that things needed to change in No10.
What was happening in the UK: By March 11 there had been 456 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and seven people had died. There was still a lack of public testing and the death toll three weeks later – 2,450 by the end of March – suggests hundreds of thousands of cases had gone undetected.
Boris Johnson had held a Downing Street press conference on March 9 and again encouraged people to wash their hands more often but failed to introduce any tougher measures to control the disease.
He publicly announced his plan to ‘Contain, Delay, Research and Mitigate’ the virus – which modelling later suggested could have killed over 250,000 people in a massive first wave. The PM added: ‘There is no hiding from the fact that the coronavirus outbreak will present significant challenges for the UK.’
The Cheltenham Festival horse racing event went ahead on March 10 despite concerns that the virus could spread there, and Liverpool FC played a Champions League match against Atletico Madrid at Anfield on March 11.
Liverpool FC played a Champions League match against Atletico Madrid to a packed stadium at Anfield on March 11. By this time there had already been 456 coronavirus cases in the UK and seven people had died. It later turned out those figures were just the tip of the iceberg
March 12: ‘Surreal day’ forcing PM’s attention to Covid as it emerges there are ‘no plans’
What Cummings said: He described March 12 as a ‘completely surreal day’ and said he sent a message to the PM saying: ‘We’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly s***. No plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today, not next week. We must force the pace. We’re looking at 100,000 to 500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.’
Mr Johnson was reportedly distracted that day because he was being pushed and pulled over Covid, Donald Trump wanted him to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East, and his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, was angry about a story in the media about the couple’s dog, Dilyn.
What was happening in the UK: Prime Minister Boris Johnson held another TV press conference and finally introduced a self-isolation rule for anyone testing positive for coronavirus, but not their households. Schools remained open and ministers only committed to ‘considering the question of banning major public events’. Mr Johnson advised over-70s not to go on cruise ships and said schools shouldn’t go on international trips.
He admitted: ‘We’ve all got to be clear, that this is the worst public health crisis for a generation’ and warned the number of people infected was far higher than data were showing.
On that day 134 new coronavirus cases were recorded – more than double the 52 two days earlier – and there had been a total of 590 confirmed infections in less than two weeks, even without publicly available testing. Nine people had died to this date. The number of infections is since known to have been significantly higher and 2,450 people had already died by the end of March.
The Cheltenham Festival was ongoing.
This MailOnline graphic from March 12 shows how the virus had already spread to every region of England
March 13: Cummings realises threat to NHS and civil servant warns: ‘We’re f****d’
What Cummings said: Whiteboard ‘Plan B’ was drawn up on March 13 by Cummings and No10 colleagues and shows they realised hospitals wouldn’t be able to cope with the surge in people infected with Covid. The penny dropped that lockdown would be necessary to control the outbreak and they wrote the chilling question: ‘Who do we not save?’
This shows how Cummings and other Downing Street insiders already knew the outbreak was out of control and that deaths and hospital admissions would inevitably soar in the coming weeks and months.
The former adviser repeatedly claimed during his evidence session that the Government had no plans in place for how to deal with a disease outbreak and had to make most of its response up on the hoof.
Lockdown was an alien concept at the start of the outbreak and ministers did not want to consider it because they didn’t believe people would follow the rules or accept the levels of control.
There are scraps of what lockdown could mean on the whiteboard from mid-March, with suggestions of ‘everyone stays home, pubs etc close’; ‘except certain infrastructure people’; ‘who looks after the people who can’t survive alone?’. It adds choice between for ‘less contact’, ‘no contact’ and ‘contact illegal’.
That evening, he said, the second most senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office, Helen MacNamara, walked into Mr Johnson’s office and allegedly said: ‘I think we are absolutely f*****’, and warned that ‘thousands’ of people could die.
Ms MacNamara had, Cummings said, been told by the director general at the Cabinet Office: ‘I have been told for years that there is a plan for this, there is no plan, we are in huge trouble’.
There was no plan for what to do with all the bodies of people who would die if there was a massive spike in fatalities, he said.
It was on the night of Friday 13 that officials began to agree the UK was heading for ‘the biggest disaster since 1940’ when the country entered the Second World War.
What was happening in the UK: By March 13 coronavirus cases were clearly surging out of control. There were 207 new cases confirmed, quadrupling from 52 just three days earlier, and there were a total of 797 to date.
The Cheltenham Festival horse racing event went ahead on March 10, 2020, despite concerns that the virus could spread there. Pictured: A race on March 13, by which time Boris Johnson had already admitted: ‘There is no hiding from the fact that the coronavirus outbreak will present significant challenges for the UK’
March 14: Realisation dawned on need for lockdown but it needed planning on the hoof
What Cummings said: Cummings showed the March 13 whiteboard to the Prime Minister the following day, on March 14, he said, and suggested to Mr Johnson that at a minimum social contact would have to be limited and pubs closed, for example.
He said it had become clear by this point that a lockdown was necessary because the virus was already out of control but that there was no plan or blueprint they could use and it had not been seriously considered until shortly before.
What was happening in the UK: The UK had recorded a total of 1,061 cases, with 264 on March 14, and 28 people had died. Both numbers appeared to be growing exponentially.
Critics were growing angry about the lack of proper restrictions and calling for a lockdown at the same time that Dominic Cummings claims he was trying to hammer home the message in Downing Street.
One frustrated scientist warned on March 12: ‘Now is the time for the UK government to ban large gatherings, ask people to stop non-essential travel, recommend employers shift to home working and ramp up the response.’
March 16: Still no proper data or concrete plans, but Boris calls for country to stay home
What Cummings said: Cummings and other officials were ramping up the pressure after realising the UK was headed for disaster, but there was still no reliable data to work out how bad the situation already was.
He said Sir Simon Stevens, the chief of NHS England, was relying on intensive care data, which is known to come around three weeks later than changes in infection rates and people generally don’t start getting admitted until there are thousands of cases per day.
Cummings said he was working out epidemic growth and possible numbers of cases and deaths using the calculator on his phone and writing on a whiteboard.
Cummings finds out that the Cabinet Office is not responsible for controlling or scrutinising pandemic response plans, after believing it was for over six weeks, he said.
What was happening in the UK: The Prime Minister held another press conference and made his first substantial step towards locking down the country, urging people to stop ‘non-essential contact’ with others and to ‘stop all unnecessary travel’. He also added a 14-day self-isolation period for people living with someone with the virus.
He added: ‘We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.’
Venues and offices remained open, however, and large gatherings could still go ahead just without the usual support from the emergency services. The next day Mr Johnson held another briefing with the caution: ‘I stress that although the measures announced are already extreme, we may well have to go further and faster in the coming days to protect lives and the NHS.’
There had been 1,543 coronavirus cases and 64 deaths across the UK.
On March 16 Boris Johnson advised people to stop going to the pub but did not go as far as to make them close or impose and limits on capacity. Pictured: Punters in a bar in Manchester on March 20
March 19: Still no shielding plan and Government didn’t want a helpline for vulnerable
What Cummings said: Cummings said the Government still did not have a proper plan by March 19 for the shielding programme, even though SAGE had recommended that elderly and vulnerable people should protect themselves at home.
He said: ‘The shielding plan was literally hacked together in two all-nighters after the 19th, I think, Thursday the 19th.’
Whitehall had said they didn’t want to have a phone helpline for people on the shielding list because the Government didn’t have the capacity to cope with it. There were more than three million people on the list at its peak at the end of the 2021 lockdown.
Mr Cummings said: ‘Not only was there not a plan, lots of people in the Cabinet Office said we shouldn’t have a plan, we shouldn’t put out a helpline for people to call because it will all just be swamped and we don’t have a system.’
Dominic Cummings’ evidence in full: Every answer Boris Johnson’s fired chief of staff gave to MPs in bombshell evidence
Westminster was gripped as Dominic Cummings gave evidence to MPs about Boris Johnson’s handling of the Covid crisis.
The maverick former No10 chief adviser gave seven hours of testimony to a joint session of the Commons health and science committees.
Below is Mr Cummings’ evidence in full:
Q – Greg Clark, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
On January 22, Wuhan, a city the size of London, was sealed off. Did this set alarm bells ringing?
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.
When it started, in January, I did think in part of my mind, ‘Oh my goodness, is this it? Is this what people have been warning about all this time?’ However, at the time the PHE (Public Health England) here and the WHO (World Health Organisation) and CDC, generally speaking, organisations across the western world were not ringing great alarm bells about it then.
I think it is in retrospect completely obvious that many, many institutions failed on this early question. The Taiwanese his the panic button some time around New Year’s Eve and immediately closed the borders and introduced a strict quarantine system. I think it’s obvious that the Western world including Britain completely failed to see the smoke and hear the alarm bells.
Q – Do you remember a time when you personally were seized of the important of it?
On something like January 25 I said to the private office at Number 10 that we should look at pandemic planning and soon after I asked Matt Hancock where we were with scanning the pandemic operation plans.
I would like to stress and apologise for the fact that it is true that I did this but I did not follow up on this and push it the way I should’ve done.
We were told in No 10 at the time that this is literally top of the risk register, this has been planned and there’s been exercises on this over and over again, everyone knows what to do.
And it’s sort of tragic in a way, that someone who wrote so often about running red teams and not trusting things and not digging into things, whilst I was running red teams about lots of other things in government at this time, I didn’t do it on this.
If I had said at the end of January, we’re going to take a Saturday and I want all of these documents put on the table and I want it all gone through and I want outside experts to look at it all, then we’d have figured out much, much earlier that all the claims about brilliant preparations and how everything was in order were basically completely hollow, but we didn’t figure this out until the back end of February.
Q – When did you talk to the PM about it first?
It was definitely raised with the PM in the first half of January in a chat with me and other people.
Q – In the months that followed was Covid the most important matter that you dealt with?
At the time the government, in no way shape of form, acted like it was the most important thing going on in January, nor in February. The Government itself and Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February on this in any way, shape or form. Lot of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.
Obviously in retrospect I should have been hitting the panic button more than I did in February, I did more as the month went on.
Q – Give a brief summary of the principle things you were dealing with during February.
I was working very much on the science and technology agenda and procurement reform. I was dealing with other things like HS2, national security issues and the reshuffle.
Q – Did you have to book meetings with the PM?
I could just pop in and out of his office. I sometimes wrote notes but most of our interaction was talking. I wrote a note to him about the Covid situation in February, I’m not sure if I did in January.
Q – Did you attend Cobra meetings in February?
I don’t think that I did. What I did was hire a guy to run data for No10. [Additional Q – Did you choose not to go?] It was a question of dividing people’s time. I don’t remember if I attended any of the Cobra meetings.
[Additional Q – Did you advise the Prime Minister to go?] No. [Additional Q – Why didn’t you?] The best use of people’s time was to send Ben Warner, a physicist I hired, and a Downing Street adviser. A lot of Cobra meetings are just PowerPoint slides and aren’t very useful.
Also bear in mind one of the huge problems we had throughout was things leaking and creating chaos in the media. Things were leaking from Cobra, leaking from practically everything.
The view of various officials inside Number 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’
On why the PM didn’t attend Cobra meetings on Covid in February
‘So when I wanted to have sensitive conversations that I didn’t want to see appear in the media I did not have those conversations in Cobra.’
I was having meetings about it with people like Patrick Vallance [chief scientific adviser] in a way I knew wouldn’t leak. In February the Prime Minister regarded this as just a scare story, he described it as the new swine flu.
The view of various officials inside Number 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 panic.
I’m not a technical person, I’m not a smart person. I couldn’t understand a lot of the things that were being discussed and the modelling that was being done so I thought it was more useful to have a PhD physicist there [at the Cobra meetings]. A lot of it was over my head.
Q – Why did you change your 2019 blog to refer to coronaviruses?
There have been a lot of media stories saying that I changed what I wrote but that’s all false. Not a single letter of what I wrote was changed. Not a single word was changed. [Additional Q – But you added to it?] Correct. [Additional Q – How did you have time to do that?] Pasting over a blog takes 90 seconds or so.
Q – Could you explain the thinking on the issue of herd immunity?
Herd immunity was seen as completely inevitability… and the only option.
Essentially the logic of the official plan from the Department of Health was that this disease is going to spread, vaccines are not going to be relevant in any way, shape or form over the relevant time period, we were told it was essentially a certainty that there would be no vaccines available in 2020, something else which turned out to be completely wrong because, as I think we’ll come onto, it actually turns out we could’ve done vaccines much faster than happened.
But at the time the whole plan was based on the assumption that it was a certainty that there would be no vaccines in 2020. So the logic was you can either have … if it’s unconstrained it will come in and there will be a sharp peak like that, and it will completely swamp everything and huge disaster.
The logical approach therefore is to introduce measures which delay that peak arriving and which push it down below the capacity of the health system.
In response to the argument. ‘But hang on a second, look at what they’re doing in Wuhan, Taiwan and South Korea’, the assumption in Whitehall was that it wouldn’t work for them… secondly, that it was inconceivable that the British public would accept Wuhan-style measures.
Even if we therefore suppress it completely all you’re going to do is get a second peak in the winter when the NHS is already every year under pressure, so we only actually have a real choice between one peak and herd immunity by September – terrible but then you’re through it by the time the next winter comes – if you try and flatten it now the second peak comes up in winter time that’s even worse.
So, horrific as it looks in the summer, the numbers will be even worse if this happens in October, November, December-time.
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. [Additional Q – So when Matt Hancock said on March 15 that herd immunity was not a policy, was that wrong?] Completely wrong. That was the plan. I’m completely baffled as to why No 10 has tried to deny that because that was the official plan.
Q – Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary
On the Sage meeting on March 5 it was five weeks since the WHO had said Covid was an issue of international concern. But the minutes say that the only measures recommended were shielding the vulnerable and elderly. Did you advise him that Sage were wrong?
No I didn’t. In the first ten days of March I was increasingly being told by people things were going wrong, but I was also really worried about smashing my hand down on a button saying ‘ditch the official plan’. By the 5th I was still reluctant to do that.
I was really torn about the whole thing because in the first 10 days of March. I was increasingly being told by people I think this is going wrong but I was also really, really worried about kind of like smashing my hand down on a massive button marked ‘ditch the official plan, stop listening to the official plan, I think there’s something going wrong’. I did do that as we’ll come on to but on the fifth I was reluctant to do that.
[Additional Q – Did you advise that Cheltenham be cancelled?] No, the official advice was that it wouldn’t make much difference to transmission, which was bizarre in retrospect, and that cancelling it could be actively bad as it would just push people into pubs. No one in the official system, in the Department of Health, drew the obvious logical conclusion, which was ‘shouldn’t we be shutting all the pubs as well?’
There was push back from within the system against advising on the 12th to say stay at home if you’ve got symptoms.
The official line was that it wouldn’t make much difference to transmission.
On the decision to hold Cheltenham
And me and others were realising at this point the system is basically delaying announcing all of these things because there’s not a proper plan in place.
As far as I could tell from Sage, and as far as the minutes show, the fundamental assumption remained we can’t do lockdown, we can’t do suppression, because it just means a second peak.
Prior to giving evidence, Cummings posted a chart on Twitter claiming that COBR documents had the ‘optimal single peak strategy’ showing 260,000 dead because the system was ‘so confused in the chaos’
You had this surreal situation where part of the building was going on about Covid, the other about bombing the Middle East and the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.
Cummings on the state of Number 10 on March 12
Q – Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary
How would you change the structures and systems to stop this happened in a future pandemic?
The way in which Sage and the whole thinking around the strategy was secret was a huge mistake because there wasn’t proper scrutiny.
Anyone who has been involved in the political world knows the whole thing is riddled with duff studies to make people believe things that weren’t true. And that was one of the problems behind the group-think, which was that the British public would not accept a lockdown or an Asian-style track and trace system. Those assumptions were central to the official plan and obviously completely wrong.
[Additional Q – did you advise going further with the lockdown?] We need to understand the crucial period between Thursday 12th and the Sunday, when things started to change.
I have been told for years that there is a plan for this, there is no plan, we are in huge trouble.
What a senior official allegedly told Cummings on March 13
On the 12th – it was a completely surreal day… I sent a message to the PM at 7.48 that morning and, forgive the language this is expressed in, ‘We’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly s***. No plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today, not next week. We must force the pace. We’re looking at 100,000 to 500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.’
So the day started with that but we then got completely derailed when in the morning of the 12th the people of the National Security Committee came in and said Trump wanted us to join in a Middle East bombing campaign.
And then to add to … it sounds so surreal couldn’t possibly be true … that day, the Times had run a huge story about the Prime Minister and his girlfriend and their dog. The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that.
I think we’re absolutely f****d and are going to kill thousands of people.
Reported comments of a senior civil servant
So we had this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying are we going to bomb Iraq? Part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.
Fortunately thank God the Attorney General persuaded the PM not to join in with the Middle East bombing campaign.
The evening of Friday 13th, I’m sitting with Ben Warner [data scientist] and the PM’s private secretary in the PM’s private study and we discussed about how we would have to speak to him tomorrow about needing to ditch the official plan. This is the white board [pictured below] which has plan B sketched on it.
The scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken and you need a new plan.
At this point, deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara said she had been talking to the official Mark Sweeney, who was in charge with coordinating with the Department of Health and he said, ‘I have been told for years that there is a plan for this, there is no plan, we are in huge trouble’.
Helen McNamara said ‘I think we are absolutely f****d’ I think this country’s in a disaster and we are going to kill thousands of people. I said ‘I think you’re right, it is a disaster, we are going to sketch out plan b’.
On March 14, the Prime Minister was told ‘You are going to have to lock down’. But there is no lockdown plan. Sage haven’t modelled it, DH don’t have a plan, we are going to have to figure out and hack together a lockdown plan. This is like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying, ‘the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken, and you need a new plan’… that is what the scene was like that morning, with Ben Warner in the Jeff Goldblum role.
He took the Prime Minister through all the graphs, and through the NHS graphs, and showed him that the system is thinking this is all weeks and weeks and away… but this is all completely wrong… The NHS is going to be smashed in weeks.
Mr Cummings teed up his evidence by tweeting this chart of the government’s Plan B this morning
Q – You didn’t advise the PM to change tack until March 11, you didn’t advise him to cancel Cheltenham, the Champions League, to close the borders. Do you not recognise that was a massive failing on your part?
There’s no doubt in retrospect that yes, it was a huge failure of mine and I bitterly regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did. In retrospect there’s no doubt I was wrong not to. All I can say is my worry was, my mental state at the time was, on the one hand you can know from the last week of February that a whole many things were wrong.
But I was incredibly frightened, I guess is the word, about the consequences of me kind of pulling a massive emergency string and saying the official plan is wrong and it’s going to kill everyone and you have got to change path because what if I’m wrong? What if I persuade him to change tack and that’s a disaster?’
The Prime Minister said all the way through February that the issue was not this new swine flu thing, the danger was that people could overreact to it and cripple the economy.
Cummings giving evidence today
We are sitting in the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet were talking about the herd immunity plan. The Cabinet Secretary said ‘Prime Minister you should go on TV tomorrow and explain to people the herd immunity plan and that 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’.
I said ‘Mark (Sedwill), you have got to stop using this chicken pox analogy, it’s not right’ and he said ‘why’ and Ben Warner said ‘because chicken pox is not spreading exponentially and killing hundreds of thousands of people’.
To stress, this wasn’t some thing that Cabinet Secretary had come up with, he was saying what the official advice to him from the Department of Health was.
Q – Mark Logan, MP for Bolton North East
You are seen as very successful, but why were you not able to nail an earlier lockdown?
I didn’t pay enough attention to it early enough, for sure. It was the classic group think bubble. But what is inarguable the case was that part of my job was to challenge things and I didn’t do that early enough. If this process had been opened up to outside smart people we would have figured out at least six weeks earlier that there was an alternative plan.
At this time, not just the Prime Minister but many other people thought that the real danger is not the health danger but the over-reaction to it and the economy. The Prime Minister said all the way through February and through the first half of March the real danger here isn’t this new swine flu thing, it’s that the reaction to it is going to cripple the economy.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, although I think he was completely wrong, lots of other senior people in Whitehall had the same view, that the real danger was the economic one.
Mr Cummings posted another excerpt from a report suggesting that imposing a tough lockdown could merely have caused a second peak at a more dangerous time for the NHS
Q – During January, February and March time, how was the international situation being fed into the system?
It was essentially completely discarded by the system. During January, February and March, even after we went into lockdown on the 23rd, the view was that it is inconceivable to do a Taiwan-style lockdown.
Q – Rosie Cooper, MP for West Lancashire
What were the barriers to having the Sage papers published?
There was no push back from Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty or Sage. But what should have happened is we would have had the conversation in January. What happened is we waited until when we were already dangling over the cliff.
I think the Secretary of State for Health should have been fired for at least 15/20 things, including lying to people on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting and publicly.
Cummings making allegations about Matt Hancock
How would you rate the performance of the Department of Health and secretary of state?
Like in much of the Government system, there were many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels who were terribly let down by senior leadership. I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve 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.
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. I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired, so did the cabinet secretary, so did many other senior people.
Why were the financial incentives for people to self-isolate so fatally weak?
Not only was there not a plan, lots of people in the Cabinet Office said we shouldn’t have a plan, we shouldn’t put out a helpline for people to call because it will all just be swamped and we don’t have a system. The shielding plan was literally hacked together in two all-nighters after the 19th, I think, Thursday the 19th.
There wasn’t any plan for shielding, there wasn’t even a helpline for shielding, there wasn’t any plan for financial incentives, there wasn’t any plan for almost anything in any kind of detail at all. There wasn’t any plan for furlough at all, nothing, zero, nada. The problem you are describing about the financial incentives on Covid and isolation, you are obviously completely correct, there should’ve been a whole plan but like on testing, like on shielding, there was no plan.
When the PM tested positive we were told that the Department of Health had been turning down ventilators because the price was marked up.
Why did you describe the Department of Health as a smoking ruin?
There wasn’t any system set up [at the Department of Health] to deal with emergency procurement. When the PM tested positive we were told that the Department of Health had been turning down ventilators because the price was marked up. It completely beggars belief that this kind of thing was happening.
We were told the PPE would not arrive for months because it would take that long to ship. ‘But why are you shipping it?’… ‘That’s what we always do.’ I told them to fly it… at that point you had Trump getting the CIA involved to get the fast track on PPE. Everything was like wading through treacle, that’s why I described it as a smoking ruin.
Q – Greg Clarke
Saying Matt Hancock lied is a serious accusation, can you provide evidence to back that up?
There are numerous examples. I mean in the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required. He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.
He kept basically bouncing back to, we don’t know how dangerous it is, we are destroy the economy by having lockdown, maybe we shouldn’t do it.
Cummings’ claim about Boris Johnson
In mid-April, just before the Prime Minister and I were diagnosed with having Covid ourselves, the Secretary of State for Health told us in the Cabinet room everything is fine with PPE, we’ve got it all covered, etc, etc. When I came back, almost the first meeting I had in the Cabinet room was about the disaster over PPE and how we were actually completely short, hospitals all over the country were running out.
The Secretary of State said in that meeting this is the fault of Simon Stevens, this is the fault of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it’s not my fault, they’ve blocked approvals on all sorts of things. I said to the cabinet secretary, please investigate this and find out if it’s true.
The cabinet secretary came back to me and said it’s completely untrue, I’ve lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings. The cabinet secretary said that to me and the cabinet secretary said that to the Prime Minister.
[Did you make a note of that at the time, could you supply that to the committee?] Yes.
There is a very profound question about our political system that at the last election we could a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Q – Rebecca Long-Bailey, MP for for Salford and Eccles
Who in government was arguing against taking action for economic reasons?
The Prime Minister’s view, throughout January, February, March, was – as he said in many meetings – the real danger here is not the disease, the real danger here is the measures that we take to deal with a disease and the economic destruction that that will cause. He had that view all the way through.
‘In fact, one of the reasons why it was so rocky getting from the 14th, when we suggested plan B to him, to actual lockdown was because he kept basically bouncing back to ‘we don’t really know how dangerous it is, we’re going to completely destroy the economy by having lockdown, maybe we shouldn’t do it’. Fundamentally the Prime Minister just never … didn’t really think that this was the big danger.
Now, there have been lots of reports and accusations that the Chancellor was the person who was kind of trying to delay in March. That is completely, completely wrong. The Chancellor was totally supportive of me and of other people as we tried to make this transition from plan A to plan B…
It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position in my personal opinion. I’m not smart.
There is a very profound question about our political system that at the last election we could a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. It shows things have gone extremely, extremely badly wrong.
There’s so many thousands and thousands of wonderful people in this country who could provide better leadership than either of those two. And there’s obviously something terribly wrong with the political parties if that’s the best that they can do.
It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position in my personal opinion. I’m not smart. I’ve not built great things in the world. It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there, and that the choice at the last election was Jeremy Corbyn. It’s also the case that there are wonderful people inside the Civil Service, there are brilliant, brilliant officials all over the place. But the system tends to weed them out from senior management jobs. And the problem in this crisis was very much lions led by donkeys over and over again.
Q – Greg Clark
Did you engage in any unauthorised briefings?
Yes, I did talk to people unauthorised in the sense of actually pretty rarely did I speak to the Prime Minister before I spoke to any journalists. I just got on with things because because my view was the Prime Minister already is about a thousand-times too obsessed with the media.
I did occasionally talk to people but the main person I spoke to was Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC because the BBC has a special position in the country during a crisis and because I was in the room for particular crucial things I could give guidance to her on very big stories.
[Additional Q- Will you share all your communications with the media?] With all respect, chairman, I am not going to hand over my private phone and let you judge what you decide should be in the public domain. Anything that I think is significant to decisions that were made, including decisions that were made, then I will share those. But when you get to that stage you are getting into that territory because you are also sharing things that journalists themselves would think was private.
Q – Laura Trott, MP for Sevenoaks
In a well-run entity in my opinion you would have had some kind of dictator. If I was PM I would have said Mark Warner is in charge of the whole thing, he has as close to kingly authority as the state has legally to do that, and you’re pushing the boundaries to legality.
Cummings on how he would have run things as PM
Did anyone mention a risk register or a pandemic to you before 2020?
Yes, I had conversations with people about the risk register in general and some specific issues. And also during my time in government I had various specific meetings with people about the question of bioterrorism, which obviously overlaps with pandemic planning. [Additional Q – Did you have any views on the quality of the pandemic plans at that point?]
I thought that many of the plans seemed to me to fall very short of what was actually needed. A lot of things are just power points and they lack detail. But most importantly, I think, I think the process around them as with the pandemic plan is just not open, there’s is not a culture of talking to outside experts. I was talking to some people who said ‘did you ever go read the plan on solar flares’ and I said ‘no’, and they said ‘if you get some expert advice to that you will see that the current Government plan on that is just completely hopeless, if that happens we are all going to be in a worse situation than Covid’.
One thing that I did say to the Cabinet Secretary last year in the summer, and which I ardently hope is actually happening, is there ought to be an absolutely thorough, total review of all such risk register programmes, there ought to be an assumption of making this whole process open and only closed for specific things. For example, one of the other things very high on risk register is the anthrax plan, what happens if terrorists attack with anthrax. Personally, I would be extremely concerned that the plan is as robust as it should be.
Who is responsible for monitoring future threats?
One of the fundamental problems that we find in this whole thing, it is a general problem in Whitehall but it was very, very clear and disastrous during Covid, is you have this system where on the one hand ministers are nominally responsible in various ways for a, b, c. But ministers can’t actually hire and fire anybody in the department. The officials are actually in charge of hiring and firing a, b, c.
So, as soon as you have some kind of major problem you have kind of that Spiderman meme with both Spidermans pointing at each other, it’s like that but with everybody. So, you have [Matt] Hancock pointing at the permanent secretary, you have the permanent secretary pointing at Hancock, and they are both pointing at the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Office is pointing back at them and all the different Spidermans are all pointing at each other saying ‘you are responsible’ and the problem is that everyone is right and everyone is unhappy.’
In my opinion, you would have had a kind of dictator in charge of this. If I was PM I would have said Mark Warner is in charge of the whole thing, he has as close to kingly authority as the state has legally to do that, and you’re pushing the boundaries to legality. He is in charge, and he can fire anybody and jiggle people around.
Q – Katherine Fletcher, MP for South Ribble
I’d like to return to the data and the raw numbers that you had between January and May last year. What’s your assessment of it?
Concerns is like saying ‘we have concerns about the situation in May 1940’. In all sorts of ways it didn’t exist. The data system on Monday March 16 was the following. It was me wheeling in that whiteboard you’ve seen from the photo, Simon Stevens [head of the NHS] writing down data from the ICUs. Then I’d get my iPhone out and go times two times two times two, then I’d say that if it was doubling every five days these are the numbers we’d be looking at… and everybody would say ‘Jesus, could this possibly be correct?’
There was no proper data system and there was no proper testing data. All we could really do was look at people arriving in hospital, so the whole thing was weeks out of date.
There was no functioning data system. And that was connected with, there was no proper testing data.
Because we didn’t have testing, all we could really do was look at people arriving in hospital. So, the whole thing, therefore, is weeks and weeks out of date. Once you’re looking at ICU numbers as your leading indicator, you know that you’re in a world of trouble… By the time I came back from being ill on Tuesday April 14 they then had an absolutely brilliant data system and were starting to build models and predictions… that completely transformed decision making.
Q – Aaron Bell, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme
What were you doing in the first two weeks of March when you had said there wasn’t a plan.
I was having meeting after meeting with people trying to figure out where we were.
[…] I have been critical of the Prime Minister. But… if you dropped, you know, Bill Gates or someone like that into that job on the 1st of March, the most competent people in the world you could possibly find, any of them would have had a complete nightmare. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister made some very bad misjudgments and got some very serious things wrong. It’s also the case, there’s no doubt, that he was extremely badly let down by the whole system. And it was a system failure, of which I include myself in that as well, I also failed.
Are you here today to help learn lessons or settle scores?
I was invited here to try and explain the truth about what happened. I think the families of the thousands of people who died deserve the truth. [Additional Q – What was your motivation for working for the PM?] I went in because in summer 2019 the situation that the country was facing was either to sort out the constitutional crisis and have a new agenda, or have Jeremy Corbyn and a second referendum which would have been absolutely catastrophic… that’s why I got involved.
I do think that one way in which this could have been even worse than it was, if you imagine that Parliament of 2019, that hung parliament. If you imagine that Parliament colliding with this disaster in January 2020, God only knows what would have happened. If that broken Parliament had limped on into 2020 and confronted this crisis, I think that we’d be now be looking at … I think, frankly, the whole system would have would have melted down and fallen apart.
Q – Greg Clark
You were a person of significant influence… what you’ve described is being like a whistle blower in a sense… did you forget to blow the whistle?
It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan, it’s true that I helped to try to create what an official plan was. I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.
If you’ve got an official plan, you’ve got all the Sage advice, you’ve got the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Secretary, everyone saying you’ve got to do this and if we don’t do it and if we try and do something different and stop it now it’s going to many times worse in the winter, I was asking myself in that kind of two-week period if I hit the panic button and persuade the Prime Minister to shift and then it all goes completely wrong, I’m going to have killed god knows how many hundreds of thousands of people.
I only had the confidence to do that once I knew that people who are much smarter than me had looked at it and said basically the Sage groupthink is wrong, the DH groupthink is wrong, we’ve got to change course. I apologise for not acting earlier and If I had acted earlier then lots of people might still be alive.
Q – Jeremy Hunt
On March 12 we stopped community testing following very clear Sage advice that when there was sustained community transmission is would no longer be useful. Sage didn’t even model Korean-style test and tracing until May, so why was there such a long delay?
Fundamentally it goes back to what we discussed in the previous session. The logic was that if you were going for herd immunity for September, you wouldn’t take testing as an urgent priority.
What happened when I got back on the 13th was I was getting calls saying Hancock was interfering in the building of the test and trace system because he he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month.
Cummings on Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s target of hitting 100,000 tests a day
That’s why the Department of Health said in that week that we didn’t need to test anybody any more. The view was that 60/70% of the country are going to get it, that’s going to happen for sure, so why would you bother testing people.
No one challenged that idea strongly until we challenged it strongly during the shift to Plan B.
The core of the Government kind of collapsed when the Prime Minister got ill himself, because he’s suddenly gone and then people are literally thinking that he might die.
By the time I came back on April 13 we had this terrible situation where Alex Cooper (senior civil servant) and his team were trying to build a whole new test and trace system. In my view disastrously, the Secretary of State had made – when the PM was on his near deathbed – this pledge to do 100,000 tests by the end of April. This was an incredibly stupid thing to do because we already had that goal internally.
What then happened when I came back around the 13th was I started getting calls and No 10 were getting calls saying Hancock is interfering with the building of the test and trace system because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month. We had half the Government with me in No 10 calling around frantically saying do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term.
We had half the government calling around frantically saying ‘Do not do what Hancock says’.
And we had Hancock calling them all saying down tools on this, do this, hold tests back so I can hit my target. In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’. It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.
That was one of the reasons why the Cabinet Secretary and I agreed that we had to take testing away from Hancock and put it in a separate agency.
What the point at which we said we were going to do it the South Korean way?
It was all very disjointed. We didn’t even have a plan for lockdown, so we were trying to get to lockdown and also get people to work on what this South Korean thing would look like, then the Prime Minister goes down and nearly dies…
What I wanted to do was essentially the same as had happened in South Korea and Taiwan and places where you start using bank data, you start using mobile phone data to triangulate where people are, use the data coming off cell phone towers and things like that. So it wasn’t just the testing system you had to get built up. It was also the whole data architecture as well. And, of course, we had huge legal problems because you had a whole bunch of people coming back in the legal system saying first of all, EU data law or GDPR basically means all of this stuff is illegal, medium term.
Secondly, a whole bunch of things around European Convention of Human Rights, right to privacy, etcetera etcetera. So you had … we’ve got to build this testing, we got to build this data, we’ve then got to think about all these complexities about the legal side…
[Boris Johnson] laughed and said, ‘You’re right, I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos than I am of the chaos, chaos isn’t that bad because chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.
Alleged comments made by Boris Johnson
It took too long to get set up, the system was hugely disrupted in April because of the Hancock pledge… fundamentally this should have been happening in January. There was all this bureaucratic infighting in April and remember the Prime Minister wasn’t back then either, Dominic Raab was doing a brilliant job chairing the meetings, but this was a huge call and very difficult for him to basically start carving up the Department of Health in April.
So, essentially, we never really got to grips with it until the Prime Minister was back in the office and the cabinet secretary and I could say to him we’ve got to do the track and trace thing in a completely different way.
I warned the Prime Minister, if we don’t fire the Secretary of State (Matt Hancock) and we don’t get the testing in someone else’s hands, we are going to kill people and it will be a catastrophe. And there was the constant, repeated lying about PPE… The Cabinet Secretary told me the British system is not set up to deal with a Secretary of State who repeatedly lies in meetings.
Q – Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton
Can you give me any idea why Matt Hancock is still the Secretary of State?
He came close to removing him in April but fundamentally wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t just me saying this… pretty much every senior person in Number 10 said he couldn’t go into autumn with the same system in place. There was certainly no good reason for keeping him.
Could you not have changed things by threatening to resign?
Yes, I thought about it in March but we managed to bounce things do so I didn’t do it. I had similar conversations in September, and I had a conversation with the PM a night before an operation and said I was reflecting on things, and that you need to know that I am leaving at the latest Friday December 18 and I think it’s best if you and I part ways.
He [Mr Johnson] asked why and I said because this whole system is chaos, this building is chaos, you know perfectly well that from having worked with me I can get great teams together and manage them, but you are more frightened of me having the power to stop the chaos than you are of the chaos, and this is a completely unsustainable position for us both to be in.
I am not prepared to work with people like Hancock any more, I have told you umpteen times you have got to remove him, you won’t, it’s going to be a disaster in the autumn and therefore it’s time that I should go. He laughed and said ‘you’re right, I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos, chaos isn’t that bad, chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge’.
Do you have an insight into how the decision was taken to send untested people back to care homes?
We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.
When we realised in April that this had happened the PM said after coming back from being ill, ‘What on earth are you telling me’. Hancock told us in the Cabinet room that people were going be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?
We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.
Now while the Government rhetoric was we have put a shield around care homes and blah blah blah, it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.
Q – Anum Qaisar-Javed, SNP MP for Airdrie and Shotts
Who was advising the PM and government not to close the borders and on what basis?
I heard this discussed several times with the PM in Number 10. He was told repeatedly not to close the borders because it would have no effect. At this time another kind of group-think thing was that it was basically racist to close the borders. And in retrospect that was obviously completely wrong.
After April, though, it’s a completely different story, once we’ve switched to plan b. Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy because the Prime Minister never wanted a proper border policy. Repeatedly in meeting after meeting I and others said all we have to do is download the Singapore or Taiwan documents in English and impose them here.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications if the Prime Minister changes his mind tens a day and then calls up the media contradicting his own policy.
We’re imposing all of these restrictions on people domestically but people can see that everyone is coming in from infected areas, it’s madness, it’s undermining the whole message that we should take it seriously. At that point he was back to, ‘lockdown was all a terrible mistake, I should’ve been the mayor of Jaws, we should never have done lockdown 1, the travel industry will all be destroyed if we bring in a serious border policy’. To which, of course, some of us said there’s not going to be a tourism industry in the autumn if we have a second wave, the whole logic was completely wrong.
Q – Barbara Keeley, Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South
Looking back after Covid was seeded in the care home do you think the government was taking the risk of transmission into care homes as seriously as it should… and was it the start of the Prime Minister’s thinking of ‘it’s only killing 80-year-olds’?
It was obviously not being taken seriously. Like all of these things it wasn’t deliberate, it was a function of the fact that the system was overwhelmed. The Prime Minister’s views on Covid and who it had killed were relevant in September, October but not his point.
Like with Rashford. The Director of Communications said don’t pick a fight with Rashford, the Prime Minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice.
Q – Luke Evans, Tory MP for Bosworth
What would you scare the government out of 10 on its communication both to the NHS and the public?
Some of the people working on the communications were some of the best people in the world, and one of the great myths about the thing was that bad communications was the reason for all of these problems. But fundamentally the reasons were bad policy, bad decisions, bad planning, bad operational capability. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications if the Prime Minister changes his mind tens a day and then calls up the media contradicting his own policy.
Like with Rashford. The Director of Communications said don’t pick a fight with Rashford, the Prime Minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice.
There was a certain infamous trip and that had huge influence on how people perceived the lockdown… where do you draw the line for you having personal responsibility over decisions both in government and over the way you conduct yourself?
In autumn 2019 I had to move out of my house because of security threats. On February 28 when I was dealing with the Covid problem on the Friday night I was down in Westminster and my wife called there was a gang of people saying they were going to come into the house and kill everybody inside. She was alone in the house at the time with our three-year-old.
After that I spoke to the PM and the deputy cabinet secretary and it was suggested that I either move my family into government accommodation or move them off to family. On the 22nd the story happened with the fake quote saying I wanted everyone to die and that caused further problems.
The whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is – and then it undermined public confidence in the whole thing.
Mr Cummings on the Barnard Castle incident
After that weekend I said to my wife, ‘Right, we’ve got to get out of here on Friday’. So before the whole thing happened with the PM on sick and my wife calling up on the Friday it had already been decided that I was going to move my family out of London despite the Covid rules… what happened is because of this we kept the whole thing very quiet, almost nobody in Number 10 knew about it.
When the story then came out much of the story was completely wrong, it suggested that the police had spoken to me about my behaviour over lockdown rules but that was completely false… the PM and I agreed that because of the security things we would stonewall the story and not talk about it…
The Prime Minister and I agreed that because of the security things, we would basically just stonewall the story and not say anything about it. I was extremely mindful of the problem that when you talk about these things, you cause more trouble for yourself, and I’d already put my wife and child in the firing line on it. So I said, I’m not talking about this, we should shut our mouths about it.
I ended up giving the whole rose garden thing where what I said was true, but we left out a kind of crucial part of it all. And it just … the whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is – and then it undermined public confidence in the whole thing – the truth is, if I just when the Prime Minister said on a Monday, ‘we can’t hold this line, we’re going to have to explain things’, if I just basically sent my family back out of London and said here’s the truth to the public, I think people would have understood the situation.
It was a terrible misjudgment not to do that. So I take … the Prime Minister got that wrong, I got that wrong.
Q – Dean Russell, Tory MP for Watford, asking about Mr Cummings’ role in decision making.
If I could have clicked my fingers and done things there would have been a serious border policy, masks would have been compulsory, Hancock would have been fired.
People in Westminster underestimated the influence I had in July and December 2019 but massively exaggerated the influence I had after the election. The whole idea I was the second most powerful person in the country and all of that was massively wrong and that I could just click my fingers and do this and do that and do the other was completely wrong.
If I could have clicked my fingers and done things there would have been a serious border policy, masks would have been compulsory, Hancock would have been fired.
Fundamentally the Prime Minister and I do not agree about Covid. After March he thought that the lesson to be learned is we shouldn’t have done a lockdown, we should have focused on the economy, it was all a disaster, ‘I should have been the mayor in Jaws’. I thought that perspective was completely mad. I had very little influence on Covid stuff, I mean I tried, I made arguments, but as you can see on pretty much all the major arguments I basically lost.
In the summer I brought in Simon Case because I thought the PM wasn’t listening to me, our relations are getting worse and worse, his girlfriend is desperate to get rid of me and all my team, if I brought in someone official then maybe he would listen to them.
Your advice was not being taken, was that because you were not bringing people along with you to give that advice to get the Prime Minister to listen, what was the reason for that?
It’s hard to generalise about some of these things. I think on lots of stuff on Covid actually there was a centre of gravity in No 10 with the same view that agreed with me, but the Prime Minister just wouldn’t do it. On many, many issues, me, the cabinet secretary, the chancellor, other senior people agreed but the PM just wouldn’t do what we advised. The problem wasn’t necessarily that I couldn’ t persusade other people. Everybody was screaming on quarantine ‘Have a policy, set it out clearly and stick to it, you cannot keep changing your mind every time the Telegraph has an editorial on the subject’ everybody agreed with me about that regardless of what they thought the real policy should be.
Nobody could find away around the problem of the Prime Minister just going like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.
Q – Jeremy Hunt, asking again about Barnard Castle and the reason for the trip there
I wish I had never heard of Barnard Castle and I wish I had never gone and that the whole nightmare had never happened.
If I was going to make up a story I would come up with a lot of a better one than that right? It’s such a weird story. A few days earlier I had been sitting writing a will, what to do if I die. I was then thinking about coming down on the 12th, the Sunday, but I was basically too ill to do that. My wife said ‘look you’re in a state, you can barely walk, are you sure you can go back to work?’ It seemed to me if you are going to drive 300 miles to go back to work the next day then pottering down the road 30 miles and back to see how you feel after just coming off what you thought might have been your deathbed doesn’t seem, it didn’t seem crazy to me at the time.
Did it not seem crazy to do it with your wife and child in the car with you?
No it didn’t. It didn’t seem crazy at the time. It was like, okay let’s get in the car, go up and down the road, if I feel bad, come up, see how I feel as I get going. I completely understand why people thought the whole thing was weird. Obviously I wish I had never heard of Barnard Castle and I wish I had never gone and that the whole nightmare had never happened. Hopefully people can – even if they don’t agree – they can understand, as I say, I can only apologise for the whole debacle.
What is it that you think that we got right on the vaccine that was so different to some of the other things we’ve been talking about?
I think fundamentally on vaccines there was clear responsibility, there was someone who was actually in charge of it Kate Bingham, she was working with Patrick Vallance, she built a team who actually understood what they were doing and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around. We had a formal thing that was ‘You’re in charge of it, you report directly to the PM, don’t report to the Department of Health’ so she knew who her boss was on it. We also said to her, treat this like a wartime thing, ignore rules, if lawyers get in your way come to us, we’ll find ways of bulldozing them out of your way.
The conventional wisdom was that we were not going to get a vaccine in 2020. There’s a network of people, Bill Gates-type people, that were saying completely rethink the whole paradigm of how you do this. Build in parallel.
Patrick Vallance texted me on the 24th of March. There is no doubt we could have done this quicker than we did. The conventional wisdom was that we were not going to get a vaccine in 2020. There’s a network of people, Bill Gates-type people, that were saying completely rethink the whole paradigm of how you do this. Build in parallel, here is the science thing, here is the manufacturing thing, here is the distribution, here is the supply, here is the logistics, here is the data.
The normal thing is you do things like that sequentially. What Bill Gates and people like that were saying was you need to think much more like some of the classic programmes of the past. The Manhattan Project in World War II, the Apollo programme, build it all in parallel.
What Bill Gates was saying and what Patrick and what Patrick’s team was saying was the actual expected return on this is so high that even if it does turn out to be all wasted billions it’s still a good gamble.
Patrick said take it out of the Department for Health, will you support me on that with the PM? I said absolutely damn sure I will. I spoke to the cabinet secretary and the cabinet secretary agreed. It’s inconceivable we can leave it with DH and the Prime Minister decided in about 90 seconds fine do it and that was it. There was a little bit of whinging here and there. There was a little bit of pushback in some quarters saying ‘This is extremely risky, if you don’t go down the EU approach and that works and we do it ourselves and that doesn’t work you guys are all going to be in a huge political hole.’
But you have to take risks, and when we looked at the EU plan it just looked like the classic Brussels thing… thank goodness that was one of the few things I think we got right.
Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry
Did the PM specifically acknowledge that pursuing herd immunity would result in an excess of 500,000 deaths and was he ok with that death toll?
When we had the meeting on the 14th, the whole point of that meeting was looking at the numbers about what the herd immunity by September really means. It’s on the best case 260,000 dead. We can’t do that, we just can’t do it, we’re going to have to gamble on an alternative plan. But remember at that point the conventional wisdom was that if you took the alternative plan there could be three times more dead by the autumn.
Do you support a call for a public inquiry led by a judge?
Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.
I don’t know about led by the judge because history shows they often get down to the bottom of it, but the principle of it, yes. I think the idea that an kind of serious inquiry doesn’t start until next year is completely terrible – tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die, there is absolutely no excuse for delaying that because the reason why so many people died are still in place now.
This has to be honestly explained. If the Government, if No 10, today won’t tell the truth about the official plan, which they briefed the media about and described on TV a year ago, what on Earth else is going on in there now?The elected representatives of the families of people who died who didn’t need to die must get to grips with this now, there’s absolutely no excuse for delaying it…
Why on earth can MPs now not take control and say it is intolerable that this could be delayed. The elected representatives of those who died who did not need to die need to get grips to it right now. And the longer it’s delayed, the more people will rewrite memories, the more documents will go astray, the more the whole thing will just become cancerous.
Why is the PM running away from meeting the bereaved families?
I can’t imagine why.
A year after the first lockdown almost a billion pounds in government contracts has been awarded to 15 firms linked to Conservative donors. During your time at Downing Street was there concern about the transparency of the contracts process?
Initially no. In February, March, all of our concern was the disaster coming at us. At the beginning concerns were about procurement and speed and getting PPE to the frontline. Later on there were concerns yes over how it had all been done. But that didn’t cross my radar until around May.
Some contracts were completely unusable. In hindsight what processes do we need to stop the government throwing millions of pounds down the toilet in wrong items.
I said many times before that the procurement system is completely unfit for its purposes in Whitehall. Ironically in January and February when I should have been paying more attention to Covid, one of the big issues I was dealing with was procurement. I was bringing in outside experts to address the issue as we didn’t have time to sort this out before the crisis hit. The fundamental thing is there needs to be a legal, proper, emergency, fast-track process. There also needs to be people with the skills to execute that at speed and at scale.
The obvious lesson [to learn is] changing the legal framework and changing the recruitment and training so you have people in place who can do that. We need an emergency system where people are authorised to execute at scale and fast. But that just did not exist.
If you were advising the Prime Minister would you be supporting President Biden’s move to support lifting patent protection. What is your opinion on vaccine IP?
I don’t really have an opinion on it. I suspect Bill Gates knows more than President Biden does. If he is saying it’s a mistake then we should take his opinion very seriously.
Q -Greg Clarke, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
You said it was Patrick Vallance’s idea to set up the vaccine task force?
He had the idea, but there were lots of people thinking of similar kind of things around the same thing. He wanted to do it outside of the Department of Health. Patrick and I both spoke to the cabinet secretary about it.
Who was instrumental in the Government deal with AstraZeneca?
Patrick Vallance was instrumental in that. He used to work in vaccines so he knew the key players involved. At one point there was a terrible fright that the Department for Health was about sign a duff contract on AstraZeneca, which would not have given us the rights to the vaccine, or they would have been questionable.
Patrick intervened and made sure the contract went properly. He deserves enormous credit for his role in the vaccine task force. He was the first official to come up with the idea, he pushed it and he deserves enormous credit from the country for that.
Were ‘human challenge trials’ contemplated?
To stress, this is not my idea. Normally in vaccine trials you have to take time to go through the testing process. However it is un-arguable what should have happened in this case. The companies who made the vaccines created the vaccine itself in literally hours in January. What should have happened is Governments like the UK and US should have gone to them and said ‘we will take this idea and pay 5-10,000 people to be injected with Covid’, then others get placebos, and then everyone takes their chances. If you die your family gets compensation. That would obviously have been the best thing to do as it is fast. We could have cut the time doing this and had vaccines in peoples’ arms by September.
The fact we didn’t do that, were we constrained by regulation or a distaste for the risk involved in injecting healthy people with Covid?
Fundamentally it was never properly explored. People suggested it and it was talked about. It was one of the many things I should have forced harder. As far as I understand it was never properly discussed but obviously should have been.
You’ve raised concerns that the plan for vaccination or the adjustment to new variants… I sense from some of your recent tweets you think that’s not as sound as you think it should be – have I got that right?
Yeah I mean obviously I’m not in government any more but I talk to people who are involved with it and people have just expressed concern to me that since Kate Bingham left, the kind of normal entropy process of Whitehall has got its fingers on the thinking and operation around this, and there hasn’t been the kind of very aggressive approach that some inside government want about thinking through the danger of variants and how to make sure that the vaccine task force is ahead of the game on the whole thing. I can’t go into any details because I’m not aware of them, but I’ve had senior people express this concern to me, yes.
Is that a personnel or an organisational concern?
I think it’s a combination of both, yes, I think there’s been a shift in personnel as far as I understand it and concerns about the orginsational setup.
You’ve spoken very positively about Kate Bingham’s role in this – and others. She went through a difficult time in the autumn in which she was being criticised roundly by, from a lot of quarters, and some of that briefing was alleged to come from No 10, were you aware of that at the time?
I was aware that there was briefing against her, I was told at the time by officials that they thought that most of this had come from DH, but like most of these things we never really got to the bottom of it. Certainly nobody who you could describe as being part of my core team, obviously was involved with that, and nobody – I asked all of them do you know where this is coming from?
The closest we got to is, essentially, people in the system kind of feeling either their noses put out of joint, or jealous about her profile or whatnot. One of the bad thing that happened is lots of outsiders who came in to volunteer to help, the same thing happened in terms of test and trace, people dropped massively lucrative careers to come and help test and trace also got trashed in the press from parts of Whitehall, which I thought was terrible. Kate, I think got caught in that sort of crossfire.
So you’re not aware of any particular briefing against her from No 10 but conversely there was radio silence from No 10 in terms of defending her and my understanding is she had to threaten to go on a broadcast round personally before there was a response from No 10. Again were you aware of that?
I tried to stay very far away from kind of day to day media things, I was, I’ve got a vague recollection of a time when there was some kind of problem, I think she might have called the PM directly or something and said essentially that I’m very unhappy about what’s going on and I want some support from No 10. But I wasn’t part of that conversation and I don’t really know what happened, I’m afraid.
Did you not feel, observing, even as a reader of the newspapers and the blogs that hold on we should be backing the work that she’s doing?
Yeah, I mean as far as I was concerned we were backing, we were, I mean, we obviously supported the work of the vaccine taskforce.
But in terms of Kate Bingham’s role in that?
I mean No 10 as far as I was concerned and as far as I was aware No 10 was always supportive of the vaccine taskforce and supportive of Kate Bingham. As I said I’ve tried to escape, you know, I tried to keep out of the way of lots of conversations with the PM about briefing or leaks or that sort of thing so I’m not the person to speak to about it. All I basically remember is, there was some briefing against her, I asked at a couple of meetings where do we think this is coming from, the best guess of people in No 10 was people in Whitehall have had their noses put out of joint. I also vaguely remember some Sunday Times story about her but I can’t remember what that was.
Just looking back and thinking of the system, when you appeared before the science and technology committee you talked about the deal that you did with the PM when you came in to be his advisor in Downing Street. You said there were four components of it – get Brexit done, double the science budget, create a new research agency modeled on DARPA, and the fourth was to change the way that Whitehall works.
You’ve talked about this a lot in your blog in 2019, you talked about turning government institutions responsible for decisions about billions of lives and trillions of dollars from hopeless to high performance, so this was one of the things you thought about and you brought into Whitehall.
Looking back, as we are and you can now, some of the failures have been organisational and operational. The fact that we had to stop testing in the community because we didn’t have enough tests. The fact that we ran out of tests in September. Why did something that was such a priority in which you, was part of the deal for you being in Downing Street, why was it not possible to have made good progress on that during the nine months that you were there, say from July to the spring of 2020?
Well I mean July 2019 to the election was essentially just completely dominated by the constitutional crisis over Brexit and we did not really have the bandwidth or the real authority to start trying to change all sorts of things in terms of Whitehall, we had to be very focused on what it was we were trying to change. For example we did chain the whole decision making structure around the negotiations and around Brexit. We did change, radically and effectively.
It wasn’t Cummings against the system, it was all sensible people realised that this was a huge gap in Whitehall capabilities and we had to try and change it, both structurally and in terms of the specific skills
I started work on things like the procurement reform, but it’s also the case that we just, the situation was so overwhelming, particularly after the kind of prorogation and the Supreme Court judgement, that, in September 2019 I had senior officials come to me and say the system’s creaking and very shortly senior people are just going to stop obeying orders from this PM and are going to regard it as not a legitimate government, so it was a really, really weird time.
That was an environment in which you could certainly start saying, right we’re going to have all of these huge shifts to the basic wiring of Downing Street and Whitehall. Once we came back in January I did begin a lot of this process, I talked to the Cabinet Secretary about making various changes to the civil HR system.
As I’ve said, I started a whole process from the beginning of January. And the data side, the problem was that we basically already had a kind of six weeks for coming back… to Covid sort of overtaking things from mid-February.
One of the things that did happen, which was relevant to the September decision, was building the, what’s known as the analytical private office in No 10, which I think will be a permanent institution, will become a permanent part of how every subsequent PM works, I think no one in their right mind would possibly get rid of it, and everybody involved with it knows it’s been a great success.
So I think that is, that shows, if you read the media you’d think this was some huge row between me and all the officials and everyone hating it and everyone screaming at each other but the truth is, pretty much all the good senior officials pretty much supported me on that and helped me do it.
It wasn’t Cummings against the system, it was all sensible people realised that this was a huge gap in Whitehall capabilities and we had to try and change it, both structurally and in terms of the specific skills.
You’ve talked about the success of the vaccine taskforce. Are there lessons to be learnt from that that can be applied across Government?
Certainly I think, as I’ve said, some of the core principles of who is actually responsible. Who is actually responsible for the team. Jeremy knows, Greg knows, the British state is set up almost by design to create a dysfunctional system because you have to go out and potentially resign over things that are being done and you cannot fire a single person apart from your SPADs in your department. Literally nothing that works well in the real world ever works like that. It’s a completely crazy system. It is a system where responsibility, by design, is diffused and no one knows who is really in charge.
One of the key things in the vaccine taskforce was we tried to keep things very simple and have how do really good things work, know who the boss is, it is her team. Kate is going to pick the people, Patrick is going to give scientific advice, and if it turns out Kate Bingham is no good [clicks fingers], we’ll get rid of her like that and we will put someone else in who is responsible.
That was the whole reason for the approach. She picked the team, she did a good job of picking the team, and everyone knew they were working for her. They were not working for Hancock, they were not working for the Permanent Secretary in DH, they were not working for the Cabinet Secretary. That very very simple principles are the core of the difference between well-run organisations and badly run organisations.
So I think there’s obvious lessons to learn. The problem is that in much of Whitehall it kind of suits everybody to be the Spidermans of everyone pointing at each other and saying it was him, no it was him, no it is him, no it is him.
Changing that is, even after a disaster of the scale that we have seen, going to be a really big job to have those conversations like ‘well is the Secretary of State really in charge of this’, ‘can they really do that’, because the Cabinet Secretary, of all the people that have criticised Mark Sedwill, but he was perfectly within his right to say to the Prime Minister that Matt Hancock was the minister responsible. He was correct.
But we were also correct to say but so-and-so is in charge of this and so-and-so is in charge of that. I can’t fire them. Fundamentally the only person that can fire them is the Cabinet Secretary and the only way that happens is if the Prime Minister tells the Cabinet Secretary to fire them. The whole thing doesn’t work if it is like that.
Moving on to Covid therapeutics, obviously success in that field, but you have said previously that funding bureaucracy held back progress. Can you tell us more about that and how those issues were overcome.
In February/March various scientists and entities came to Patrick Vallance and me and basically just said ‘there’s a standard kind of scientific funding process. It takes a long time to get through but we’re in this wartime situation can you basically bulldoze some of the rules out the way? Can you speak to UKRI etc’. We did do. Both Patrick and I talked to UKRI and other parts of the system and said ‘here’s what the blocks are, ABCD, can you try and scupper these and basically create a fast-track process’ so if people like Paul Nurse call up and say we can do blah you can just go [clicks fingers] ‘right how much, £10million, done, how much £20million done etc etc’.
I think it certainly wasn’t perfect but it did change quite dramatically February to April.
The recovery trial has been respected around the world in its success. What do you put their success down to?
I think similar sort of principles. Clear responsibility, some great people in charge. This guy called Jeremy Farrar played a critical role in it. Part of my job is I know far more about the things that went wrong than the things that went right. If things seemed to be going right and people were saying that’s okay I had so many other things to deal with that I kind of didn’t really go into it so the recovery trials I don’t really know that much about because people just said ‘it seems to be going well’. I only got involved, I think Jeremy Farrar called me up and said ‘I’ve hit the following problem’. Otherwise I just kind of let people get on with it.
Now these are UK-wide endeavours. One of the criticisms being the disjointed approach across the UK, the devolved administrations in particular, what do you recall of discussions over using public health legislation with respect to, or in comparison to, civil contingencies legislation?
Again, my memory is pretty hazy but fundamentally the Cabinet Secretary says the Civil Contingencies Act is essentially useless. It was drafted back in the 70s, it has had a few tweaks but it’s completely unfit for its job. If we try to rely on a lot of its powers we face the problem that various people who don’t like it will go to courts and we will suddenly be bogged down by judicial reviews at a time when we haven’t got three weeks to go to court even on a fast-track process.
So that was a big problem and that was basically why we introduced the Emergency Coronavirus Bill. Again, one of the reasons I think now for why I think you guys are right to be having this inquiry is upgrading the whole Civil Contingencies Act is a critical thing. One very simple example of that is the whole question around enforcement. One constant problem that we had all the way through the spring and summer and into the winter was the police say their powers are unclear, ‘we can’t do this, the courts won’t uphold that’ blah blah blah, and the emergency powers are unclear in various ways.
So we kind of found ourselves in this situation of people arguing for greater and greater restrictions on certain law-abiding people because we felt we couldn’t actually enforce certain rules against non-law abiding people. It was a terrible ratchet to get into. I’m not at all knowledgeable about that but it is an important question to get into.
Q – Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
Perhaps I can start by just asking Mr Cummings to give us a brief summary of what were the key decisions taken during the autumn?
I guess the most significant were that mid-September Sage and Patrick Vallance advised that we take rapid action and do some kind of short sharp burst because of where the numbers were going. The Prime Minister decided not to do that. We then went round the houses on that decision and then ended up doing it on the 31st of October.
In the meantime the Government careered around all over the shop trying to do these local lockdowns and other things but, in the end, it didn’t work. Is it useful if I kind of spell out what the actual meetings were?
That would be helpful and then Jeremy Hunt is going to follow it up.
Essentially what happened is that in the week of roundabout the 15th of September. I think the 18th is the Friday. Essentially Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty came to Number 10 and said ‘we and Sage think that we need to consider a kind of two-week or possibly longer lockdown’.
Bear in mind back in the summer, when we were discussing the whole reopening plan, I asked Chris Whitty ‘what do you think the chances are that we will have R over 1 again by September and back to problems’. He said ‘I think before schools go back R will be below 1 but it is over 50 per cent likely the R will be over 1 if we bring schools back in September.’
Many of us had said, in the summer, to the Prime Minister ‘do not tell everyone get back to work. Don’t do this whole everybody get back to work and Covid’s over’, but at that point his main concern was about the economy so over July/August the whole impotus of the Government was ‘pretend we can get back to normal’.
So 17th Patrick and Chris come to Number 10 and say we should lockdown. I say to the Prime Minister quote ‘the lesson of the first wave was earlier the better when dealing with exponentials like this’. Then on the Friday there was a long discussion of it with the PM. Essentially at the end of that he decided we’re not going to do anything.
I said ‘listen, we all lived through the March horror. I’ve got a dreadful feeling about this. We’re making the same mistake’. I said ‘before you make a final decision on this I want to do something that sounds a bit wierd. I want to have another meeting on Monday where what we do it we imagine the meeting is at the end of October. We’ll have all the documents presented to you.’
So I’m talking about Monday 21, I think it is. So the meeting itself will be on Monday 21 September, but we will set the whole thing in the future, at the end of October. And we will look at the data with what is our best guess this is what the situation is going to be like at the end of October. And talk through all of that. Because, if you’re going to look at that then and then decide to lockdown, we should do it now, that’s the whole lesson of March.
Cabinet Secretary says ‘I completely agree, that’s a very good idea, we’ll get the data team on it etc etc.’ So the data team, which by in February/March didn’t really exist, it was Ben Warner, by now there was a really, really good mix of officials and SPADs [special advisers] in Number 10. They crunched all of these numbers with SAGE data and other stuff over that weekend.
Then on the Sunday evening, there was a meeting with a combination of SAGE scientists and some external people. By this point, unfortunately, the Prime Minister was listening to various people who were saying things like ‘there’s already herd immunity in the population, there won’t be any second wave’ etc etc. So we had this meeting in the Cabinet room on Sunday evening. Patrick and Chris gave their view, a guy called Henigan and a woman from Oxford called Professor Gupta I think it was, gave the kind of ‘don’t lockdown’ view.
John Edmunds said, he was on SAGE, ‘surely we’re going to learn the lessons of March, here’s what the data is going to be, the only logic of not going a lockdown then will be that you’re not going to do it at all. There’s no way that you’re not going to make that decision, just do it now otherwise it’s all going to be worse.’ Prime Minister said ‘I’m not persuaded of that’.
We then had the hypothetical meeting in the future and there was a brilliant young woman called Catherine Cutts who we brought in from outside Whitehall who kind of presented all of this data. So we set it all out to the Prime Minister, here’s this stuff – there’s a huge contrast at this point to what I was describing in March. In March, no testing data, no proper data system, me scribbling things on a whiteboard with an iPhone.
By now you’ve got a completely professional team, really on it, they’ve got all the testing data, they’ve got all the NHS data, it’s all really clear. They set it all out. And just from some of our point of view, it’s just completely obvious that in this hypothetical point five, six weeks hence, when we’re looking at that, we’re back to we are now days from you’re going to have to act now or you’re going to push the tripwire by where the NHS is going to get smashed again. That’s what all data is showing us.
And the Prime Minister wasn’t persuaded about this. I said to him, ‘the whole lesson of what happened before is that by delaying, the lockdown came later, it had to be more severe, it had to last longer. The economic disruption is even worse, anyway, and we’ll have killed god knows how many thousands of people in the meantime who got Covid, who wouldn’t have caught it if we act now. Surely we’ve got to learn the lessons from the past.’ And the Prime Minister decided no and said, basically, we’re just going to sit and hope.
Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
Let’s pause that point and we’ll go into some detail, we’re going to go with Carol Monaghan before Jeremy Hunt.
Q – Carol Monaghan, SNP MP for Glasgow North West
Mr Cummings you said earlier in your evidence today that you should’ve been hitting the panic button back in February/March time. So we’re now talking September, we’ve learned lots of lessons, we’ve got a handle of things – were you hitting the panic button in September?
And was the Prime Minister aware of how seriously you were taking things at that point?
Yes. At that point so, as I explained before, in February/March I was very frightened is the only way to describe it, about hitting the panic button because I was worried what if I’m wrong and what if the people telling me are wrong. And the data was completely hopeless etc etc. By this time it was a completely different situation. Basically all credible serious people, in my opinion, were saying essentially the same thing. So I was very, very clear with him about it.
So you were pressing for a circuit breaker lockdown in September?
So if the Prime Minister wasn’t persuaded, in your words, of the importance of this, whose advice was he taking?
He wasn’t taking any advice. He was just making his own decision that he was going to ignore the advice.
Did his Cabinet agree with his decisions?
Cabinet wasn’t involved or asked.
Did you hear anything from Cabinet members about these decisions?
There were sort of different views. I’ve been very critical of Matt Hancock but I think Hancock agreed with me actually in September about acting then. But there wasn’t any formal Cabinet meeting to discuss it or if there was it wasn’t actually really a real discussion that affected anything.
So all these decisions were entirely the Prime Minister’s?
On the September lockdown correct.
Now I understand the meeting with SAGE representatives, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister back in September, where they were told of the importance of that lockdown –
Yes, I was there.
You were there as well? Okay. What was the Chancellor’s view on this?
The Chancellor’s view was, the Department for Health who want to do this have no plan. There is no plan for what to do. Like we’ve just gone through a whole thing where we’ve had all these arguments in June/July, and some people like Dom said don’t do for work, don’t do just for health of the economy, but you decided to do it. And now the Department for Health are hitting the panic button again and saying ‘well we’ve got to stop for two weeks’ and then what? Are we going to tell everyone to go back to work again? And then two weeks later say the opposite? There is no plan, there is no coherence to anything.
So knowing that the Department for Health was chaotic in its approach here, were the economic arguments outweighing everything else at this point?
For the Prime Minister yes.
And there was talk, and certainly the Scottish Government were pushing hard following that SAGE advice for an extension of the furlough scheme. Why was that not discussed more seriously at that point? Because it was only eventually extended at the very last minute.
I can’t remember all the kind of time details on that I’m afraid but I know all the way along, Rishi and his team took the whole issue about furlough, remember they came up with the idea, it wasn’t us at Number 10. They came up with the idea to do it, and once the Prime Minister said ‘at each stage I’m going to do X and I’ve made a decision’, the Chancellor always extremely competently and extremely ably and effectively kind of rode in and said ‘right here’s the economic package to go along with it’ and he made it happen.
Do you think if a different Prime Minister had been in Number 10 things would’ve been managed in a different way?
So his predecessors?
You mean what do I think each of his predecessors would’ve done in that situation?
Yes. If it had been David Cameron, Theresa May.
I mean it’s all a bit hypothetical. God only knows what each of them would do. But I would say if you took anybody at random from the top one per cent competent people in this country and presented them with the situation, they would’ve behaved differently to how the Prime Minister behaved.
So if we’re describing his behaviour at that point, was it driven by arrogance, complacency, or was it something more sinister?
There’s a great misunderstanding people have that because it nearly killed him therefore he must’ve taken it seriously. But in fact, after the first lockdown, his view was he was cross with me and others for what he regards as basically pushing him into the first lockdown. His argument after that was, literally quote, ‘I should’ve been the Mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open’, that’s what he said on many, many occasions. He didn’t think in July or September, thank goodness we did the first lockdown, it was obviously the right thing to do etc etc. His argument then was ‘we shouldn’t have done the first lockdown and I’m not going to make the same mistake again’.
So that does sound like arrogance.
I don’t know if arrogance is the right thing, it’s just as I said in the earlier session, the Prime Minister took the view in January/February that economic harm caused by action against Covid was going to be more damaging to the country than Covid.
And we could not persuade him that if you basically took the view of let it rip and not worry about Covid, you would get not just all the health disasters but you would also then get a huge economic disaster because if people are faced with not having any health system, which is what we would’ve been faced with in March if we went down Plan A, or what we would’ve been faced with if we hadn’t finally put the brakes on in October, then people are going to lock themselves down out of terror. And we could never persuade him of this argument. He also essentially thought that he’d been gamed on the numbers in the first lockdown.
Did you hear him say ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’ or ‘it’s only killing 80-year-olds’?
There’s been a few different versions of these stories knocking around. There was a version of it in the Sunday Times which was not accurate, but the version that the BBC reported was accurate.
And you heard that?
I heard that in the Prime Minister’s study. That was not in September though, that was immediately after he finally made the decision to do the lockdown on October 31.
You showed us a whiteboard picture and one of the phrases on it that I think has caused some concern is ‘who do we not save’. What was the answer to that?
Well that was asking the obvious question at that point. At that point it was too late to stop disaster on March 13 was my view and the people who I figured were our best view. So that comment on there was essentially already partly over the cliff, like who is not going to be saved in this situation, who’s most vulnerable, etc etc.
What was the final straw that prompted you to come give evidence such as you are today? Some would say for a government or Prime Minister adviser that discretion is important. But you’ve disclosed everything today so what has prompted that?
I think the scale of the disaster is so big that people need to understand how the government failed them when they needed it. People need to understand that now. Who knows what other kinds of problems will come along in the next few years that could easily have exactly the same consequences. Because as critical as I’ve been of the Prime Minister, in no way shape or form can you say this is just his fault, if you just shuffled him around or a couple of ministers or Hancock everything would suddenly work, it wouldn’t.
These failures are programmed by the wiring of the system. And if you have something this bad and you’ve got tens of tens of thousands of people who died who didn’t need to die and massive economic destruction the way that we’ve had it, that didn’t need to happen, if we’d sorted things out earlier, everyone in this country needs to face the reality of this. And secondly, it’s become clear over the last couple of months that contrary to when I spoke to the Prime Minister about it last year, in the summer, he has clearly changed his mind and is now desperate not to face up to this and not to learn the lessons. I think because of the disaster in the autumn.
So talking about not learning the lessons can I ask you just some quick yes no answers and then I’ll be done. So I appreciate that you did leave in November, but were you surprised by the government delays in putting India on the red list?
No not surprised at all. It was completely in character with Number 10.
And are you surprised by the confusion on the current travel arrangements with green, amber and red countries?
I’m afraid it’s déjà vu all over again.
Who is now advising the Prime Minister?
And are you surprised that people are being encouraged to travel this year?
I’m not on top of it enough to have a sensible view I’m afraid, in terms of whether or not people should be travelling.
And last year?
Well I think a lot of things that we did last summer, as I said and said at the time, I thought were big mistakes. Lots of people said to the Prime Minister last year ‘do not listen to the media screaming to you about get back to work’, because as soon as you get to September you’re going to be screaming back at everyone again, ‘work from home again’. And everyone is going to think that you’ve lost the plot, and the government’s lost the plot, and they’ll be right. But that was one of the many arguments that I lost on this whole thing.
Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
I can’t remember whether you said – were you opposed to Eat Out to Help Out?
I was opposed to the general strategy the Prime Minister set out. I think once the Prime Minister said ‘everyone get back to work, get the economy going’ and everything else, then things like that are logical. The problem is his fundamental decision about the strategy was wrong.
But in the particular, did you advise anyone against it?
I can’t really remember conversations to be honest about Eat Out to Help Out specifically.
It was a big initiative, wasn’t it?
To be honest in the grand scheme of things it didn’t seem like that at the time, no.
So you don’t recall having any conversation?
Oh no, I was definitely in meetings in which it was discussed, but at that point I basically lost the argument on the approach.
So because the strategy was not the one you wanted, you didn’t raise any objection to actions that were considered distant with the strategy?
On Eat Out to Help Out, I don’t remember to be honest the conversations that were had on it. Before that happened, that was a consequence of a strategic decision made by the Prime Minister, which was ‘we’ve killed the economy, we’ve got to get the economy back, Covid is in the past, there won’t be a second wave, get everything open’.
Me, the Director of Communications, the Cabinet Secretary, other people said ‘hang on a second, what about all the following objections to this plan’ – we lost that argument, the Prime Minister made a decision. Once that happens then a lot of other things naturally flow. Like for example students coming back in September and all that sort of thing, which clearly if you were taking a different view of it you would never have done.
So you didn’t oppose the Eat Out to Help Out because it was consistent with the strategy?
I wouldn’t say that, I honestly can’t even remember what I said about Eat Out to Help Out. I didn’t pay huge attention to Eat Out to Help Out.
Q – Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary
You’ve been very clear that the Prime Minister rejected the idea of a circuit breaker towards the end of September. Of course what he would say is that they did have that circuit breaker in Wales, but they still had to go into the November lockdown. So many people say that it was actually inevitable anyway – the seeds had already been sown by that stage.
I just want to go through some of the things that could also have contributed to the need for a second lockdown. Now you don’t recall opposing Eat Out to Help Out, which is something a lot of people have talked about. I think you just said then, correct me if I’m wrong, that you didn’t oppose students going back to university at the beginning of September. Is that right?
Yes I advised against that.
You advised against that? You did, okay.
I didn’t say that I was opposed or pro Eat Out to Help Out. I just thought it was part of a plan which on the grander scale was wrong, and I don’t remember if I even gave a view specifically on Eat Out to Help Out.
But you did, for example, advise against telling people to go back to work? You thought that was wrong?
And you did advise against students going back in September?
And, not sure about Eat Out to Help Out, can I ask you about the high number of infections that were circulating on NHS hospital wards, so NHS data now says that about 8,700 people died having picked up infections inside hospitals, and we were obviously very sorry to hear about your uncle earlier on. Did you advise that we needed to bring forward the weekly testing of NHS staff, which wasn’t actually introduced until November?
Yes. There were many, many meetings on testing NHS staff. One of the things that I spent a huge amount of time on was trying to get these LAMP and lateral flow tests going so that NHS staff could basically have a test a day, for everybody in the NHS if they wanted to. It was clear that that was technically possible, it was organisationally possible and it should be done, and I did all I could to try and accelerate that.
And who resisted that happening? Because it took a long time – we did care homes in July, I don’t think it actually got operational until September but it was promised in July, but it wasn’t even promised for the NHS until November.
I think just in general on LAMP and lateral flow, there was just this same kind of incredibly conservative attitude and a kind of ‘well if we just do PCR everyone knows where they are and no one’s going to criticise us’. As soon as you do something new, inside the Civil Service, if it works no one gets any credit and if it doesn’t work you get the blame.
So there’s this huge reverse ratchet all the time against this. It took huge effort from Number 10 to try and push this through, and that’s after we had the Prime Minister’s support, the Cabinet Secretary’s supportive, Hancock and personally supportive, and we had a whole bunch of great people involved.
To give you an example of how hard this was, after I spoke myself to some of the scientists involved with getting the mass testing going, and they described all of the problems and I spoke to the team in the Test and Trace, I sat down in the Cabinet room with the Cabinet Secretary and the head of commercial and the head of HR for the civil service and a bunch of the top officials. And the Cabinet Secretary and I said to all of them: ‘This is a war, this is a wartime measure, this could make all the difference between how this country survives, hundreds of billions of pounds before the vaccine comes into stream.
Any rules, forget. Procurement things, throw them away. HR rules in particular, throw them away, because there were huge problems with recruiting the team. So you can’t really have much more than the PM, the PM’s adviser and the Cabinet Secretary all saying that. Two weeks later all the people came back to us and said nothing’s changed. We had to do the whole thing again and the Cabinet Secretary had to threaten people with being fired.
So there was a huge general resistance to this thing because it seemed so new and risky, and you’ve got these PCR tests where the accuracy is very, very high, and then a lot of people couldn’t get their head around the stats of the mass tests.
The thing that’s puzzling about weekly testing of NHS staff is that there were repeated calls in this place, from lots and lots of different people to get on with it from the start of the summer on. And it wasn’t even announced as a plan until November.
So it wasn’t like anyone said ‘we want to do weekly testing of NHS staff’, it was actually not announced until November and then the promise was to try and get it done by the first week of December. So why did it take so long even to accept that that should be the plan, given that we now know so many people picked up infections in hospitals?
I’m not arguing with you about the announcement, I can’t remember when the announcements were made, but I was having meetings in April about testing NHS staff on as fast a pace as possible. I had meetings in July about getting mass tests out, and I had meetings literally almost every day of my government career until September 1 until the day I left on mass testing and this subject.
So you wanted to do it? That’s the point. It just wasn’t announced as an objective?
Number 10 was pushing it, the Test and Trace team that we built was pushing for it, that was definitely one of our core goals, yes.
Last one from me on this section – you said earlier that you should have resigned probably in the spring and definitely in September. You did actually end up resigning at the end of the year. Can you understand how to some people, it looks like you resigned after losing a power struggle in Number 10 but you didn’t resign over issues that cost thousands of lives, and how that makes people angry?
Well I mean there are so many crazy stories about what happened in Number 10 that are mostly untrue, so all I’d say to people is don’t believe what you read in the newspapers about things like that.
So your recognition had nothing to do with it, not being appointed to the position you wanted, things like that?
So my resignation was definitely connected to the fact that the Prime Minister’s girlfriend was trying to change a whole bunch of different appointments in Number 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs. In particular she was trying to overturn the outcome of an official process about hiring a particular job in a way that was not only completely unethical, but was also clearly illegal.
I thought the whole process about how the Prime Minister was behaving at that point was appalling, and all of that was definitely part of why I went. However, this, as I said to you, I had this conversation with him before my operation back in July, it was clear in July that our relations were very far from where they had been. And they took another terrible dive after the second lockdown in October, because the Prime Minister knew that I blamed him for the whole situation, and I did.
By October 31 our relations were essentially already finished. The fact that his girlfriend also wanted rid of me was relevant but not the heart of the problem. Part 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 be doing what he wanted me to do, and that’s obviously not sustainable for very long. I only stayed because I was desperate to try and push through action to stop as many people dying as I could do. Once the second lockdown happened on the 31st then it was obvious I was going to be gone within days.
And remember I’d already said that I was going to on December 18 in July, so it was not really anything. The thing that I got wrong and the thing that I terribly regret now, is on Tuesday 22nd, after we’d done that theoretical meeting, set in the future by five or six weeks which I organised and he saw all of the data, at that point I was already going in 12 weeks anyway.
What I ought to have done is said to him then ‘I’m resigning in 48 hours, we can do this one way or the other way. If you announce that you’re going to have a lockdown and take serious action now, I will leave, go quietly, we’re all friends. If you don’t, I’ll call a press conference and say the Prime Minister is making a terrible decision that’s going to kill thousands of people’. I should have gambled on holding a gun to his head essentially. And who knows it that would’ve worked or not, but fundamentally it was kind of the only upside, given my role there was basically done at that point.
So I apologise for not doing that, I should’ve done, I was dissuaded from it because people basically thought ‘maybe you could help reverse this decision over the coming weeks’. It’s a constant problem. You stay because you think maybe you can change things.
But in retrospect now seeing how things played out, lots of things are quite difficult to figure out, hypothetically, but there’s no doubt in my mind now that I made a mistake and I should’ve gambled in that week.
Q – Paul Bristow, Tory MP
Mr Cummings, I listened carefully to your testimony around decision-making in September, but SAGE’s advice on September 21 had a shortlist of options, only one of which was a circuit breaker lockdown. Is it any wonder that the PM sought alternatives to lockdown given the weakness of that advice?
As you can see from March, often what’s written down in SAGE papers is not really very close to the conversations that are in the room. So with respect I would say that your picture of what was presented to the PM is not accurate. Patrick Vallance was very clear, Chris Whitty was very clear, the data was extremely clear, that unless you act thousands of people are going to die.
It says here, in its September advice, SAGE said a ‘more effective response may reduce the length of time for which some measures are required’. May isn’t will is it?
The word may does not mean the same as the word will, no. But that’s not what the conversation was in Number 10.
In your testimony and on social media, you talk about an able few many who, to quote you, are ‘now gone, or leaving or planning to leave’ and the rest who are all disastrously wrong or useless, then get the promotions. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between. Your world only really sees heroes and villains. Is it really that black and white?
No of course not, but it is a basic problem inside the system that lots of very able people get weeded out from top jobs, and lots of people who are not fit for them get promoted, that’s a core problem in the political parties and the civil service.
Do you accept that there are some people who may be brilliant, but who are also difficult and flawed and, in the end, are impossible to satisfy?
Of course, but if you’re trying to get a team at the top of government to deal with crises, you have to try and get the best talent that this country has to offer. And you’ve got to get different kinds of talent – people who can think about very hard problems in a quantitative way, people who can make decisions effectively and people who can build things operationally at scale. And you need teams that can bring these skills together and integrate them. And we didn’t have that.
I’m not putting myself in the category of good people who should be promoted at all. Quite the opposite. I regarded my own position there as like a weird quirk in history, and my goal in January was to recruit a whole bunch of people who are much smarter than me and much more able than me to deal with government problems, so I could make myself redundant, which I said publicly, which I believed.
On your earlier comment about not being focused on coronavirus until a relatively late stage, one journalist has posted a message from someone who was working in Number 10 at the time and, with apologies for the language, it reads ‘disingenuous little f***er, the reason he wasn’t paying attention was that his plan to derail Boris – ‘
Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
Paul, I don’t want any repetition of that language, you can edit it.
Paul Bristow, Tory MP
Okay, ‘so the reason he wasn’t paying attention is that his plan to derail Boris … was undone by the reality of the situation, I’ve never seen such a squirming nest of contradiction embodied in a single individual.’ What’s your response to that?
I don’t quite understand the accusation I’m afraid. What is it about February that supposedly I did?
I guess it’s saying your focus wasn’t on Covid until the backend of February despite the fact the WHO had already determined that this was an emergency and you were distracted with other things. The accusation is that you were distracted by placing your own accolades in every post that was in power and that was undone by the reality of the situation. Quite frankly Mr Cummings you have to work with other people and I guess that’s the accusation, that you didn’t work well with others.
Well, I think I worked well with some people, I didn’t necessarily work well with others, different people have different kinds of temperaments. I think I would stress that lots of the things you read in the media about me are not correct. I would point out that on quite a few occasions I have built teams that have been quite successful, because I know how to build teams and I know how to manage them well. The media story is about all kinds of things that are about how relations were with civil servants and what not are 99 per cent nonsense. I would advise that you don’t listen to them.
Q – Taiwo Owatemi, Labour MP
Do you have any reasons to believe that the PM may have been distracted from leading the national response to the Covid pandemic because of his own personal financial interest?
I don’t know exactly what you mean, it’s certainly the case that in February he had a string, obviously as a matter of public record he was distracted by finalising his divorce, his girlfriend was pregnant, an engagement and his finances and all that sort of stuff. Certainly in February he had a very difficult time mid-February in his private life for sure.
Given the fact that the PM is currently writing a book, he has reportedly spent time seeking private donations to fund his own lifestyle, do you think that is a useful way for a PM to spend his time, given the fact that we were in a public health crisis?
Well obviously I think the PM’s focus should be on the PM’s job, and made clear before this meeting my views on what he was doing regarding other things in Number 10, but I don’t think today’s the day to go into that sort of stuff.
Do you think that senior medical figures, Prof Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance, working in the government were ever used during the evening press conference as political props to present greater plausibility to the government’s Covid message, even when the message wasn’t clear or ineffective?
I certainly believe that Matt Hancock used Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty as shields for himself, yes. He used the whole we’re following the science as a way of saying well if things go wrong we’ll blame the scientists and that’s not my fault. I saw him discuss that with the PM and I think it was one of the many appalling things that Hancock did.
And do you think that was an appropriate way to use the time of senior medical officers, given the fact that we were in a public health crisis?
In principle I think it was certainly a reasonable use of their time to give press conferences. I think that it was actually a good idea for us to do the press conferences in No 10 with the PM and the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, I think in principle that was the right thing to do. I was very strongly actually in favour of having the scientists and the medics just explain the reality of what was happening.
I think what was not right was the Secretary of State try to use them as a shield for himself. I think that was unethical and obviously wrong.
Moving onto the matter of ethics, as MPs we all have to sign a code of conduct to say that we’re going to be honest, we’re going to be transparent and we’re going to be accountable. So do you think that the PM and that other Cabinet members, I know you’ve already expressed your concerns about Matt Hancock, do you think that they were always transparent, honest and accountable to members of the public regarding the Covid pandemic?
I think inevitably it’s a mixed bag. I think that the Chancellor and Dominic Raab did brilliantly, I think Dominic Raab hasn’t got nearly enough credit as he should’ve done because he had to step into an extraordinary situation with the PM on his deathbed. Remember that when Raab took over there was a conversation in No 10 with the Cabinet Secretary and Director of Communications about pooling a Cabinet to try and find a replacement for the PM incase he died.
That’s how serious the situation was, and Dominic had to step into that environment in a completely, nobody had dealt with the situation that Raab faced literally since Churchill in World War Two. You had crucial elements of the State gone, PM on his deathbed, the Cabinet Secretary, blah blah blah. Raab did an outstanding job, the Chancellor did an outstanding job, I’ve made my views on the PM and Secretary of State clear.
So do you think the reason the PM didn’t sack the Secretary of State was because in doing so he himself has made very similar mistakes during this pandemic, so in doing so sacking the Secretary of State would have brought his role into disrepute. So do you think that’s the reason why the PM didn’t make such a decision?
It’s definitely the case that the PM was told that contrary to my view – I said sack him every week, almost every day – he was told though that he should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along. My counterargument was if you leave him there we’re going to have another set of disasters in the autumn, and that’s the critical thing. Forget the inquiry, god knows when that will happen. We’ve got to get rid of this guy now because every single week things are going disastrously wrong.
So let’s move onto autumn and how the tiering system was introduced… How did we get to a point of the tiering system, how was it decided? Were you involved? Did you agree when it was proposed?
I was certainly involved with it, in principle it made sense to have some kind of regional system. Again if you look at the experience of East Asia, if you have an outbreak in part of Korea you don’t shut the whole of Korea down.
What I wanted to get us to was as close as possible to that kind of system. Similarly in Britain, in an ideal world if you have an outbreak in Cornwall we didn’t want to have to shut down the north of Scotland.
The whole point of the shift to Plan B was we can then move to the East Asian approach when the testing approach was so you can go fast, shut down there, that town, that town and that town, and so on, and Scotland you carry on.
The way it was actually implemented was full of hole and extremely problematic to say the least in practise, but I think the basic concept has to be right.
What were the holes? Do you think the government acted quickly enough?
It was put together chaotically and there were all sorts of problems, are we doing it by town, are we doing it by region, if you draw a line there then will you just get people driving 30 miles to go to a pub across the line. Like lots of things it was the victim of having to be cobbled together when under time pressure to do things, rather than having been thought out earlier on.
And also this kind of second order of kind of reverberation effect of, because we couldn’t get enforcement sorted out in various ways, then we couldn’t do the specific hyper-local approach.
We basically created it ad hoc because the PM wouldn’t do the ‘let’s try and smash it now’.
What really should have happened is we should never have really let it get out of control anyway.
In September we should have smashed it, got control, then have a targeted, specific approach.
Was there any financial plan drawn up to think about how areas would be funded in the tiering system – there were issues around support provided to Manchester. In preparing for the tier system were there thoughts about how this would affect businesses and individuals in the region?
In a nutshell I would say that the Treasury did its best in a very very difficult situation, but the Treasury had to deal with the fact of No 10’s policies constantly shifting.
The whole thing was just so fast-moving and chaotic that there was never – well, in a nutshell, no. There was not a kind of ‘here it is, here’s an exact plan, here’s how we’re going to deal with all these areas’.
It was all sort of bodged together in the autumn in an environment where the policy was having to be created and the PM was constantly changing his mind about this area or that area.
There was definitely a lot of crazy randomness in terms of how money was apportioned, and decisions that didn’t really make sense.
Q – Chris Clarkson, MP for Heywood & Middleton
You’ve already indicated that you think the government was slow off the mark after the advice was given in September that we needed to consider a second lockdown. My constituency along with Greater Manchester was placed into Tier 2 restrictions, then moved into Tier 3 restrictions. Do you think the government was acting quickly enough to raise tiering restrictions in areas where there was an obvious increase in cases. If not, why not? Why did you advocate for this tiering system?
The simple answer is, take the second question first, as I explained earlier on the whole point was to try and shift from a world in which you’ve got no real data and no real understanding in March, and no real testing, and therefore you’re force to have national measures for everything, to a world in which you’ve got good testing, you’ve got good data, and you can be hyper targeted the way they are in successful east Asian countries. That was the conceptual approach that we were trying to take.
I think that was definitely the right approach to take, after all that is the way that the most successful countries on the face of the planet have done it.
I think the direction was correct, it was just, like lots of things, the thinking was done too late and operationally it was not done well.
I would agree with some operation inconsistencies for example in Liverpool when we went into Tier 3, personal care facilities likes gyms stayed open, in Greater Manchester they were closed. Who built that into the model?
I don’t know, I’m afraid.
It sounds like you gave quite a lot of advice during this entire process and according to you most of it was disregarded. Why did you stay on? If you had the opportunity to be a whistleblower rather than a whistleblower without a whistle, why didn’t you step out of government and call out what you thought were these egregious breaches?
Well as I said I thought about it a few times, I discussed it with senior people, I discussed it with the Cabinet Secretary and others. These decisions can be often difficult and, I’d watched the March situation and then I’d watched how he decided that basically he wished that he’d never done lockdown.
I thought I was extremely tempted to go in the summer but various people said to me, the autumn is going to be a disaster, he’s in complete let it rip mode, just open everything up, keep the beaches open, you’ve got to stay and try and control the shopping trolley, otherwise God knows what’s going to happen.
I think part of the problem was people thought that like in 2019, a lot of people thought in 2019 I had a lot of influence over the Prime Minister and a lot of things he would do what I said, and whilst that had been the case in 2019, from 10 o’ clock on election night, as soon as he had a majority, that situation changed almost immediately.
As I said I think I definitely should’ve gone in September, without any shadow of a doubt in my mind now. The reason why I didn’t was because it was clear we were heading for another disaster and there was going to be another whole set of meetings, and I thought well maybe I’ll be able to force this through.
I think I definitely should have gone in September.
What do you think the outcome would’ve been?
I don’t know, but as I said 20 minutes ago I think it was one of those gambles that was worth doing. My relationship with him was already broken.
If I gambled then and said I will basically call a press conference and blow this thing sky-high, and then he’d caved in and done it, then you know, tens of thousands of people would now still be alive, and we could’ve avoided the whole horror of the delays and the variants and Christmas and you know, the nightmare that the country’s gone through in the first quarter of this year.
I think I made the wrong decision and I apologise for that.
Q – Sarah Owen
We’ve had far longer with you than we’ve ever had with the Secretary of State or PM.
You’ve accused Matt Hancock of lying repeatedly, will you publish the evidence?
I’ll definitely have a look at evidence that I’ve got, I think in general it will be better not to get into the business of publishing people’s private messages.
Some of these people are in position now, and publishing WhatsApps with the Cabinet Secretary and people like that is a very big step.
I think what should happen rather than me randomly throwing WhatsApps out on the internet is that you the MPs – MPs have the power to force the government to face this reality.
What should happen is the MPs force this situation.
Perhaps it could be evidence just given to the committee and not published on the internet?
I’m happy to discuss that process. Also obviously will have to take some legal advice as well.
I think that people like the former Cabinet Secretary and others should be here in the seat like me, under oath, explaining what happened, explaining what we think we got right and what we think we got wrong.
Procurement – that falls under Cabinet Office. Do you think Michael Gove is culpable in any of the chaos you have described around PPE procurement or any of the contracts dished out around Covid?
I don’t think really that Gove had a huge amount of responsibility in a sense for this, I mean there are officials in the Cabinet Office, yes, that were in charge of various aspects of this.
Procurement is not just done centrally from the Cabinet Office, every department is running its own procurement operation.
Some parts of procurement were pulled out of DH and given to the Cabinet Office to run, that is correct, but it’s not like Gove is in charge of procurement.
He is the minister responsible for the department in Government which is responsible for procurement. Are you saying he shares no burden of blame?
I mean I’m sure that he would say like all of us involved, I don’t think there’s a single senior person involved in this who would say they didn’t make some serious mistake in this and I’m sure Michael would say the same, that he made mistakes on it, but at the heart of, we went into the crisis with the wrong system and everybody had to kind of bodge their way through that.
Who in the Cabinet was a block or a delay on the second lockdown, or was sceptical about lockdowns in general?
I don’t remember the Cabinet being involved in the discussion.
There was no discussion about the second lockdown with the Cabinet?
Not in a meaningful way, as I said I never attended Cabinet in 2020, I tried to keep out of political stuff.
The way Cabinet works now it’s largely a Potemkin exercise.
I didn’t also attend PMQ meetings all year.
There may have been one of the Potemkin meetings about lockdown.
I was in the meetings where it was actually decided and it was just the PM, Cabinet Secretary, Vallance, Whitty, me and other officials there arguing this stuff out, and it was the Prime Minister’s decision.
There may have been a meeting but that was just for show.
You said Rishi Sunak was totally supportive of lockdown in 2020. Did the Chancellor provide scientific evidence or medical advice to back up his scheme which literally had his name on it, eat out to help out?
I wasn’t really involved with the eat out to help out thing so I don’t really have very much useful to say about it.
Just for complete clarity, there have been stories saying that he tried to, that he was a kind of block and tried to throw mud in the gears. What I was saying was there were powerful voices in the Treasury saying the real danger here is economic, but in the meetings that I had the Chancellor never tried to stop that happening.
When I went through with him, Plan B, the Chancellor was completely supportive. And in fact, one of the key architects of that Plan B was actually the Chancellor’s chief economic advisor Mike Webb.
He worked on trying to figure out what the hell this Plan B looked like.
In the autumn the Chancellor was extremely sceptical of what Hancock and Department of Health were saying. He could appreciate my argument, where I was coming from.
His argument was we cannot be constantly in a situation where we constantly trolley from one side to another.
We were having discussions and the Chancellor was saying quite rightly the economy doesn’t work like that. If you’re saying now we’re going to have a lockdown, people are going to conclude the government’s lost hold of the situation. A lot of businesses are going to say that’s it until the spring.
We can’t just keep careering around otherwise we’re going to have complete bedlam.
The reports from September 2020 that the PM did not impose a new lockdown over fears that Rishi Sunak would quit are untrue are they?
Completely. 100 per cent. The Chancellor never threatened to quit. I had private meetings with him about the situation and all the difficulties of it. He said to me, for God’s sake please don’t you quit, I mean I know you want to but don’t. He was definitely not throwing round resignation threat, he was just desperate for a plan that was coherent and government could stick to.
I think people might ask whether you’re hedging your bets slightly with an eye on a future administration run by Rishi Sunak
I think everyone from my wife to everyone in Westminster and Whitehall will agree that the less everyone hears of me in future the better.
Why do you think the government are blocking a Covid inquiry now? Do you think the 128,000 people who lost their lives and their loved ones deserve answer now
Yes as I’ve said, I think they do deserve answers now. I think it’s genuinely terrible, the idea of trying to punt this all off until after the next election. When you have a crisis this bad, you have to face reality.
The fact that the Government, it’s beyond absurd we’re in a situation where millions of people watch the government have an official policy last March and now No 10’s just tried to declare it didn’t exist.
If they’ve lost the plot that badly in there, what on earth else is going on in that building?
You tweeted and have spoken of the unwillingness to learn from east and south east Asian countries because people were saying, and I quote, ‘Asians all do what they’re told so it won’t work here’. Who said that, and how much do you think that this outdated racist stereotyping has contributed to the numbers of deaths in the UK?
I don’t want to kind of get into quoting things like that because I think it would be unfair on some of the scientists and others involved in it. I think it’s undoubtedly the case that there was a general view, I mean I wrote about this I think in 2014 or something about the department for education, there was a general problem in Whitehall of parochialism, where people don’t want to look at what’s happening abroad, and there is a specific issue about thinking that we can’t really learn from east Asia, and that has been around for many many years.
I think actually a lot of senior people would openly admit to you, we all know what the conversations were in January and February.
The view was that the public won’t accept lockdown and the public won’t accept the kind of surveillance, the whole kind of test and trace infrastructure, and my argument was actually if you look at somewhere like Taiwan, you’ve got a very small but serious curtailment of civil liberties in some ways – if you want to go in or out of the country, you are quarantined. They don’t have a joke system like we’ve got, you are in a hotel, it’s patrolled, you’re not leaving, you know, forget it. It’s ultra-serious. But then if you walk around Taiwan, it’s basically, life’s basically normal.
If you’re faced with the choices of massive wave killing hundreds of thousands or that, I think almost everybody in this country would say let’s go down that route, that’s the route that we should’ve started to go down in January. We started to think about that in mid-March, but it took a few months really for that new thinking to kind of develop into real policy, develop into real operational capabilities in certain ways, but you don’t change cultural barriers like that without learning from abroad quickly.
I think it will take time to adapt.
You’ve described the PM’s running of No 10 as chaotic, incompetent, lacking judgement at times, do you think Boris Johnson is a fit and proper person to get us through this pandemic?
Q – Greg Clark
Just reflecting on the autumn and the winter, we’re approaching this with hindsight. What we do know that happened was that there was a Kent variant that has contributed most of the deaths since the summer, but we didn’t know about it in September. In evidence, chair of Nervtag was asked if the Government acted in a timely way. He said I think they have, they sent first note raising concern on December 18, and measures were put in place on the 19th. This is at odds with repeated cycle of delay and inaction?
I don’t think that’s right, no, because although the specifics about Kent may only have come up at that time, it was certainly the case that variants were being discussed in September. I had scientists say to me in September that one of the reasons we’ve got to not let this get out of control is the problems with variance.
If I knew about it in September that means that other people definitely knew, were talking about it well before then.
But not a specific variant – it was a concern about variants in general?
I can’t remember the detail of my conversations now on variants but it’s certainly the case, I had specific warnings from scientists, and not just any old scientists, scientists who’ve been repeatedly proven right, so I took what they said particularly carefully.
I was looking back over the whole thing and doing a kind of scorecard of who’s been right about this and who’s been wrong about it. The people who were right about it said to me in September, watch out for this variant, it could get very nasty. The same people who were right about that in September, the reason why I brought the issue up recently, publicly, was because the same people were saying the same thing to me in January, saying the government is not acting properly, we still don’t have a proper border policy.
The committee has taken extensive evidence on variants, you would know variants arise all the time in their thousands. That’s the nature of viruses. And so, given that we were in September we now have the benefit of hindsight that tells us that we know there was a particularly dangerous variant, the Kent variant. We also know that we have vaccines that in September and October were not proved for use. Would it have been reasonable, based on a generalised concern about variants, not a specific concern one had been discovered that was very infectious. Isn’t to impose lockdown restrictions without any particular intelligence as to a variant that required it, would that not have been a recipe for permanent lockdown?
With respect that’s not at all the situation that we actually faced, in September the argument was not at all about variants, it was about the existing case, and the point was that we were going to have to lock down in five weeks because of the existing variant, it wasn’t about.
The argument in September was the data on current hospitalisations, current cases, ICUs, it’s all completely clear, you are going to have to lock down at the end of October to stop the NHS being washed away again, and the whole lesson of the situation is, once you get to a position like that there’s only two logical positions.
Logical position A is, deep breath, forget it, we’re going to let the wave crash and it’s going to be what it’s going to be. Option B is we’re not going to do that, that’s inconceivable, the risks are too high, therefore we’re going to have to lock down.
As soon as you make the decision that we’re going to have to lock down, you do it today. Because that’s what exponential curves are – the faster you act, then the faster you get on top of it and then the faster it exponentially decays, and that means you don’t have to have it in place for so long, it doesn’t need to be so deep. That was what the Number 10 data team was saying to the PM in September, and what the chief scientists and what the chief medical officer were saying.
It wasn’t anything to do with variants. And that is exactly what happened. When we all came back on Friday the 31st and all looked at the data, it was basically what was read out five weeks earlier. That’s why the PM was so enraged by the situation, because he knew me and others were looking at him saying, you know, that’s what we’re now looking at, and that’s what we’re doing again. The lockdown is going to have to be worse, and thousands of people have caught it in the five weeks.
Before we had vaccines that had been approved, quite a long time before they were approved, with that rise in infections, what your advice would’ve been would be to engage in a series of lockdowns to keep infections at a low enough level for an indeterminate future, would that be right?
So I didn’t have, I left before the kind of big conversations happened. As I said, I had some conversations about variants in September, or possible August. My view was in September, if you whack it now, hard, then you get on top of it. I also remember at that time, we were in the process, I was spending a very large part of each day and each weekend working on Matt’s testing thing. So you would have all these things kind of balanced out and I would say to the PM, look, we’ve totally screwed up, but we didn’t realise until July. We’re now pushing everything we possibly can behind it. If we smash it now in September then we’ve got a chance to… come out with millions of these tests starting to be available, and then the game can be different. And then the tests can help in terms of dealing with the variants, that was the fundamental argument in September. And if we’d done that in September and really got control of it, then you wouldn’t have seen this great spike, which we only just start to sort of see come down October.
If we crushed it in September then by the time the variants came along we would’ve been in a fundamentally different position. This is not hindsight, James Phillips and others, Patrick Vallance, were saying this argument in September.
This is a lessons learned inquiry, as we said some hours ago, and we’ve taken a lot of evidence from a lot of different people, this is the penultimate session before we write our report. Just reflecting back on your time in Downing Street dealing with the pandemic, what are the key lessons that you would learn, that as in the way of lessons can be applied?
I think there’s a general principle of making things like SAGE and scientific advice more open, I think there’s an obvious question about responsibility, a really fundamental question about how the British state works, about power between ministers and officials, and who is actually in charge of things and who can actually form teams.
In normal government business, the assumption is well we can all live with a bit of friction to have this kind of division of responsibilities and muddle along, but it’s completely fatal when you’re dealing with a really serious thing, because you need to get a great team that knows exactly what the goal is and exactly who’s responsible for what, and the Whitehall culture of how responsibility is deliberately diffused is intrinsically hostile to high-performance management.
If you put Bill Gates himself, any great people from history who really understand how to run these kind of teams, all of them would say the first time you put them in the job how the hell am I supposed to manage that if I can’t pick who the team is, if I can’t fire them, if I can’t bring people in.
There should be, the HR system should change so all appointments, (apart from) the tiny fraction of national security oddities, fundamentally 99 plus per cent of civil service jobs should be open by default. The competition for them – we’ve got so many brilliant people in this country, and then we have a civil service system which literally puts a massive barrier and says we’re going to recruit all of these things from internally like a caste system, it’s a completely crackers way of doing things. Again during this thing, we have to go out and get external people to come in, provide all sorts of crucial skills, but that shouldn’t be just something you do because there’s a crisis, the British system should be open so that we can get the best people in the country to the best jobs.
Now I know from conversations that there are a lot of senior people who agree with me, but part of Whitehall will fight to the death to stop a culture of open by default jobs, but I think if you’re going to make one change in the system, that’s one of the most crucial.
And the other thing is, really thinking hard about incentives because people are not incentivised to tell the truth, they’re not incentivised to think through hard problems. People are incentivised to keep their heads down, to back up the system when it fails and the culture is that people, senior people are constantly appointed to jobs on the basis of are they a good chap, are they going to not rock the boat, actually being really really good at your job and operational delivery when it counts is not taken seriously, everyone needs to have stupid words like ‘strategy’ in their job titles, but the people who actually get things done are not respected actually inside the system.
That connects finally to, I would say, the culture, the meeting culture of how we do things, over and over again in this crisis, we would just about get to the point where the crucial thing would be exposed, and some senior person who in terror would say ‘let’s take this offline’.
I would shout no, let’s not take it offline, let’s keep it online, we’re almost about to get to the bloody point, but you’ve got this culture constantly in which things are a while away, let’s not bring up, let’s not embarrass anybody, let’s not get to the heart of the problem.
When you’re dealing with a problem like this, complete and utter disaster.
We’re all in these ludicrous meetings with people saying take it offline.
Panic ‘was like an out-of-control movie. Aliens land … and your whole plan is broken’: Cummings’ Blitzkrieg, blow by blow
Across a marathon seven hours of evidence to MPs yesterday, Dominic Cummings attempted to eviscerate a government machine he said was completely unprepared for the scale or severity of the coronavirus crisis.
Making his long-awaited appearance before a Commons select committee, the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser unleashed a relentless salvo of astonishing allegations about the individuals and processes he claimed resulted in ‘total system failure’.
He said Boris Johnson, his ministers – particularly the Health Secretary Matt Hancock – and officials all fell ‘disastrously short’ as they grappled to deal with the pandemic.
Mr Cummings began the session with an apology for his own failings and those of the rest of the Government.
He claimed Whitehall complacency in the early part of last year saw senior figures jetting off to the ski slopes as the crisis unfolded.
Mr Cummings likened the panicked scenes in government to those from an ‘out-of-control movie’ similar to 1996 disaster film Independence Day, in which the US is devastated by a surprise alien invasion. And he revealed that at one point, a senior official warned in a message that the country was ‘absolutely f***ed’.
Here, Policy Editor DANIEL MARTIN selects the highlights of one of the most extraordinary Commons appearances for many years:
Ministers fell ‘disastrously short’ of standards
Dominic Cummings began the evidence session by apologising to the British public, saying that ministers, officials – and he himself – had not met the standards that were expected of them.
The former adviser, who left Downing Street last year after a behind-the-scenes power struggle, said: ‘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.’
Across a marathon seven hours of evidence to MPs yesterday, Dominic Cummings attempted to eviscerate a government machine he said was completely unprepared for the scale or severity of the coronavirus crisis
Whitehall was not on a ‘war footing’
As the global crisis mounted in February 2020, there was no sense of urgency in Whitehall – and some senior figures even went on holiday, he said. Mr Cummings told MPs: ‘The Government and No10 was not operating on a war footing in February on this 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 any sort of sense of urgency, I would say.’
Mr Cummings admitted that he was also ‘not on a war footing’ himself in the first half of February as he was dealing with other priorities such as the Cabinet reshuffle and the HS2 railway line.
To top it all, ‘then the PM went away on holiday for two weeks’.
‘Groupthink’ over herd immunity strategy
Mr Hancock will publicly hit back at a Downing Street press conference today where he is expected to directly address the most contentious claims
Mr Cummings said he was concerned about the ‘groupthink’ of government scientists and officials, which led to an early strategy to control but not halt the spread of the virus.
He told MPs that senior figures believed it was inevitable that there would have to be some sort of herd immunity, as there was no plan in place to try to suppress the spread of the virus.
He claimed Sir Mark Sedwill, the then Cabinet Secretary, 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.’
The former aide said most people were of the view that the freedom-loving British public would simply not accept the restrictions of a lockdown.
‘One of the critical things that was completely wrong in the whole official thinking, in Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and in the Department of Health in February/March was first of all the British public will not accept a lockdown, secondly, the British public will not accept what was thought of as a kind of East Asian-style track and trace type system, and the infringement of liberty around that,’ he said.
‘Those two assumptions were completely central to the official plan and were both obviously completely wrong.’
He told MPs 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.
Panic mounts ahead of the first lockdown
In the days leading up to the first Covid lockdown, Mr Cummings described the chaos in Downing Street as like an ‘out-of-control movie’.
He claimed the lack of any action plan was similar to 1996 disaster film Independence Day in which the US is devastated by a sudden alien invasion, and compared his data expert colleague Ben Warner to Jeff Goldblum’s scientist in the film whose warnings were ignored.
‘This is like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying, ‘The aliens are here and your whole plan is broken, and you need a new plan’.’
On March 12, Mr Cummings said he texted the Prime Minister at 7.48am saying: ‘We’ve got big problems coming.
‘The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly s***, no plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today, not next week, ‘If you feel ill with cold or flu stay at home’.’
He said he had a meeting with his advisers ‘when they kind of hit the total panic button with me and they said, ‘We’re looking at all this data, we’re looking at all of these graphs, we’re heading for a total catastrophe and we need to have Plan B’.’
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 1940.’
That is the year when British forces were evacuated from Dunkirk weeks before the fall of France – Britain’s darkest hour. He claimed the deputy cabinet secretary, Helen MacNamara, said on the same day: ‘I think we are absolutely f***ed, I think this country is heading for disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.’
Distracted by Trump and Dilyn the dog
Mr Cummings said that despite the panic, the Government remained obsessed with matters such as a military request from Donald Trump and Carrie Symonds’ anger over reports about her dog Dilyn.
On March 12 – less than two weeks before lockdown – ‘suddenly, the national security people came in and said, ‘Trump wants us to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East tonight’.’
‘So everything to do with Cobra that day on Covid was completely disrupted because you had these two parallel sets of meetings. And then to add to it, it sounds so surreal it couldn’t possibly be true, that day The Times had run a huge story about the Prime Minister and his girlfriend and their dog, and the Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that.
‘So, we have this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying, ‘Are we going to bomb Iraq?’, part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.’
Health Minister Matt Hancock with members of the media outside his home in north west London, May 26
Problems with the test and trace system
The Government ‘left it too long’ to set up a functioning test and trace system, Mr Cummings said.
He told MPs that the system should have been set up in January but by April, when moves were being made, ‘the system was hugely distracted’ by Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s promise to increase testing to 100,000 a day across the country.
‘The problem is that between January and roughly mid-March, everyone was thinking, ‘Well, given we’re doing one single peak, herd immunity by September, there’s no point building up this whole thing’,’ he said.
Failures over personal protective equipment
Mr Cummings was highly critical of the Government’s failure to procure enough PPE for health and care home staff during the crisis.
He said that while Donald Trump was ordering the CIA to ‘gazump’ rival countries on orders for personal protective equipment, the Department of Health and Social Care was still trying to get orders from China by ship.
‘There were lots of great people in it but the procurement system which they were operating was just completely hopeless,’ he said.
‘There wasn’t any system set up to deal with proper emergency procurement.’
Mr Cummings said he was told vital masks and gloves were being sent by sea because it is ‘what we always do’. He said: ‘Hang on, we are going to have a peak in the NHS around about mid-April, and you are shipping things from China that are going to arrive in months’ time and all the aeroplanes are not flying?
‘Leave this meeting, commandeer the planes, fly them to China, drop them at the nearest airfield, pick up our stuff, fly it back. The whole system was just like wading through treacle.’
Dom’s whiteboard of doom
Dominic Cummings began his day by publishing a photograph of a whiteboard, reportedly in Boris Johnson’s No 10 study, which illustrates the sense of panic at the start of the crisis.
The PM’s former chief adviser said the picture, taken on the evening of March 13 – ten days before the first lockdown – reveals the early stage of the Government’s planning.
It appears to show No 10 was bracing itself for thousands of deaths and that officials even feared they would have to decide ‘who not to save’.
And it reveals that lockdown was seen as a ‘Plan B’, with the preferred plan being to rough out the pandemic.
Here are the key points:
Lockdown only way to save NHS
Officials believed there was no chance of a vaccine being ready in the year 2020, meaning that the only way to prevent a collapse of the NHS would be a ‘lockdown’, under which everyone is told to stay at home and pubs are shut.
Tougher Plan B takes shape
This section lays out the difference between the PM’s original plan – to ride out the pandemic – and a Plan B, under which a ‘full lockdown’ would be imposed to avoid the ‘collapse’ of the NHS. A sketch of a graph suggests Plan B would escape two waves of the virus.
Boris’s Plan A is fatally flawed
The notes seem to suggest that Mr Johnson’s favoured plan at the time – to attempt to ride out the Covid crisis without imposing a lockdown – would cost as many as 4,000 lives a day at the peak. A further note references ventilators, of which there was an acute shortage in the NHS at the time.
Ban on social contact touted
These three options outline how stringent any social distancing rules may be, with the most serious suggestion being that any contact at all could be made illegal.
Dire life and death decision
The message ‘Who not to save?’ indicates that it was at least considered that some vulnerable people could be sacrificed to help the rest