Dominic Cummings has given evidence to a joint meeting of the science and technology select committees about the government’s response to Covid-19. Below is how the bombshell session unfolded.
The top lines:
- Cummings said the government’s response to Covid-19 meant that ‘tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die’. (14:12)
- Matt Hancock ‘categorically told’ No. 10 he would test those discharged from hospital into care homes. Hancock failed to do so, according to Cummings: ‘It was complete nonsense’. (13:15)
- Boris Johnson initially dismissed Covid as a ‘scare story’, comparing it to swine flu. (09:53)
- Cummings said he moved his family to Durham because of security threats. (13:42)
- The former aide says he should have resigned in September due to disagreements over Covid policy. (13:52)
- The Health Secretary should have been ‘fired for at least 15 to 20’ different things. (10:57)
- The cabinet secretary warned the Prime Minister that the British system of government couldn’t deal with a secretary of state who repeatedly lies in meetings. (12:35)
- In early 2020, the PM suggested Chris Whitty should inject him with Covid live on television to prove the virus wasn’t that harmful. (10:13)
- A senior official said on 13 March ‘we are absolutely fucked’ as the government had no viable plan. (10:38)
- The PM preferred ‘chaos’ to giving Cummings more power, suggesting that chaos meant those in government would look to Johnson for leadership. (13:09)
- Cummings argued Whitehall needed a central authority figure or ‘dictator’ to deal with the pandemic. (11:38)
16:40 Cummings’s evidence session has now ended.
16:29 Concluding his evidence, Cummings was asked what he’d learnt from the pandemic. He replied: ‘There’s a general principle of making things like Sage and scientific advise more open. There’s an obvious question about responsibility, a really fundamental question about how the British state works, about power between minister and officials, and who is actually in charge of things, and who can actually form teams. In normal government business, the assumption is we can all live with friction — to have this kind of division of responsibilities and to muddle along. But it’s completely fatal when we’re dealing with a really serious thing.’
16:21 Asked if he thinks Boris Johnson is a ‘fit and proper person to get us through this pandemic’, Cummings replied simply: ‘No.’
16:16 Cummings is asked about a possible return to government under Rishi Sunak ‘I think everyone from my wife to everybody in Westminster and Whitehall will agree that the less everyone hears from me in future the better.’
16:13 The cabinet was not involved in second lockdown discussions in ‘any meaningful way’ according to Cummings who adds ‘there may have been a cabinet meeting but that was just for show’.
16:10 Cummings says he does not think Gove played a major role. The Cabinet Office was not responsible for procurement.
16:06 ‘I was extremely tempted to go in the summer but various people said to me: “The autumn is going to be a disaster, [the Prime Ministeris} in complete let rip mode, let everything open up, keep the beaches open, you’ve got to stay and try and control the shopping trolley otherwise we’re all… God knows what is going to happen”.’ Cummings also told the committee: ‘Nobody could find a way around the problem of the Prime Minister, just like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.’ Cummings also told the committee: ‘Nobody could find a way around the problem of the Prime Minister, just like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.
16:05 Again on resigning, Cummings discussed the possibility of quitting and coming clean about the divisions in No. 10: ‘If I had gamble then [in September] and said, “I will call a press conference and blow this thing sky high,” and [the Prime Minister] had then caved in and done it [locked down] then tens of thousands of people would now still be alive and we could have avoided the whole horror of the delays, the variants, and Christmas, and the nightmare the country has gone through in the first quarter of this year.’
15:55 Cummings said he told the PM to fire Hancock: ‘I said, “sack him, sack him,” almost every week, sometimes almost every day. He was told though: “You shouldn’t sack him, you should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the inquiry comes along”.’
15:52 Hancock ‘used Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty as shields for himself’. Cummings claims Hancock said he was ‘following the science’ so that he could deflect blame.
15:43 Cummings says his relationship with the PM fundamentally deteriorated: ‘Fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job’.
15:38 On the supposed power struggle that ousted Cummings, the former aide said: ‘Don’t believe what you read in newspapers… My resignation was definitely connect to the fact the Prime Minister’s girlfriend was trying to change a whole load of appointments in No. 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs.’
15:32 Asked if he heard the PM say he would rather ‘see the bodies pile high’ than bring in another lockdown, Cummings replied: ‘I heard that in the PM’s study.’
15:28 The former aide says he is being so candid in his evidence because such a disaster could repeat itself and that even if Johnson left No. 10 the problems of the existing system would remain.
15:26 Cummings says the Prime Minister: ‘was cross with me and others for essentially pushing him into lockdown… He didn’t think in July or September “thank goodness we did the first lockdown”.’
15:23 He praises Sunak again for always ‘extremely competently’ presenting an economic package at every point during the pandemic. He adds ‘God only knows’ what another prime minister would have been like and says anyone in the top 1 per cent of the most competent people in the country would have done differently to Johnson.
15:20 Cummings says he was ‘hitting the panic button’ in September, arguing that the government should have learnt the lessons of the first lockdown: ‘All credible, sensible people were saying the same thing.’
15:12 The hearing has now resumed. Cummings starts by talking about local lockdowns and the interventions made in the autumn, arguing: ‘In the end [local lockdowns] didn’t work’.
14:45 The hearing has been adjourned ahead of the final section on the November lockdown.
14:44 Dominic Cummings has so far given seven reasons that Hancock should have been fired. He has suggested that the Prime Minister considered replacing the Health Secretary. Mr Steerpike’s full list of Hancock’s alleged firing offences — according to Cummings — is here.
14:38 James Forsyth: Dominic Cummings’s evidence today has been remarkable. It is a struggle to think of another former senior figure in the British government turning so comprehensively not just on their boss but also the whole system itself.
There is one consolation, though, for those who Cummings has criticised today. It is that Cummings has made so many criticisms, charges, and accusations today that any one charge — many of which in normal times would have dominated the news for days — will now get less coverage because there is just so much to cover and discuss.
Matt Hancock is one figure that Cummings repeatedly criticised, saying he should have been fired 15 or 20 times and alleging that he lied repeatedly to other figures in government. But given the fact that the other senior figure most frequently criticised by Cummings was Johnson himself, one imagines that Downing Street will not want to look like it accepts Cummings’s criticisms
14:36 Cummings again returns to his favourite habit of criticising Whitehall, saying that in no other institution would you be barred from firing staff. He claims it suits everyone in government to be like the Spiderman meme (see below) with everyone pointing at each other to evade accountability.
14:35 Fraser Nelson: All of the questioning so far is about how Sage underestimated the virus at the start — there are no questions on how the Covid threat was wildly exaggerated later on.
Cummings is being candid about this, saying that at one stage he thought the NHS capacity would be exceeded by a factor of ten. And that even a week after lockdown, ministers were being wrongly advised that cases were still on the rise. In the event, Covid cases appear to have peaked before lockdown.
At the peak of the first wave, half of NHS hospital beds lay empty. This over-estimation didn’t just lead to £570 million being spent on 30,000 ventilators that were not needed, but it also kept thousands away from the health service. Because all parties supported lockdown, we should not expect many MPs to ask questions about this.
Cummings has spoken a lot about groupthink, but the MPs questioning him seem to be guilty of a new groupthink. One form of groupthink has been replaced with another. Sage went from one extreme to another: this point seems to be entirely lost in the session so far. We’ll be looking at in the leading article of the new Spectator, out tomorrow.
14:28 Cummings claims Matt Hancock was responsible for briefings against Kate Bingham, the head of UK vaccine procurement.
14:25 He suggests that we should have injected healthy people with Covid so that vaccine tests could have taken place earlier. He says governments need to change regulation now so that medical trials can be adapted to emergency situations.
14:21 Cummings praises the chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance for his role in securing the AstraZeneca vaccine. He says Vallance stepped in to strengthen a ‘duff’ health department contract for the jab which ensured the UK would obtain the rights to it.
14:13 He suggests that MPs should ‘take control’ as they did during the Brexit crisis and force the government to hold an official inquiry now.
14:12 On herd immunity, he adds: ‘Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die… if No. 10 today won’t tell the truth about the official plan that they briefed the media about and described on TV, what on earth else is going on in there now?’
14:09 Cummings claims it is ‘totally bizarre and incomprehensible to me’ that the government is now denying that herd immunity was official government policy in the early days and that ministers, including Matt Hancock, were briefing journalists at the time that this was the line. He adds, in response to questions by Labour MP Zarah Sultana, that he backs in principle a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
14:06 Cummings says he spoke to Bill Gates about the vaccine development programme. The Microsoft founder convinced him to develop the different elements in parallel like the Manhattan project.
14:01 Asked about his trip to Barnard Castle while in Durham, Cummings said: ‘I completely understand why people think it’s weird. I wish I’d never heard of Barnard Castle… I can only apologise about the whole debacle.’
13:56 On his increasing disagreements with the PM during the autumn, he said: ‘If I could click my fingers and have done things, there would have been a serious border policy, masks would have been compulsory, Hancock would have been fired.’
13:55 On Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minster’s partner, Cummings claimed she was ‘desperate to get rid of me and all of my team’.
13:52 Asked about his disagreements with the PM over the direction of Covid policy, Cummings said he did consider resigning. However, he explained: ‘If you threaten to resign you have to be serious about it, if you leave you basically lose all control… If you stay then you have a chance to try and influence things. I thought very seriously about resigning in the summer but I was persuaded [not to] by the cabinet secretary.’
13:42 On the controversial trip to Durham, Cummings claims he needed to move his family out of London for security reasons: ‘It had already been decided that I was going to move my family out of London regardless of the Covid rules… What I said in the Rose Garden was true but we left out a crucial part of it all… We took the decision because of the security problem… I think that my behaviour in leaving London at that time was reasonable… We were trapped in a situation where I was only telling part of the story and that was a complete disaster.’
13:37 Katy Balls: Cummings is once again painting a picture of a dysfunctional 10 Downing Street. Late last year a regular refrain among Tory MPs and some journalists was that there was a communications problem. However, Cummings disputes this. He cites the example of the government row over free school meals where they went against a campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford — only to U-turn after days of negative press. He says the then director of communications Lee Cain advised against this: “It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications if the PM changes his mind ten times a day and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy day after day after day. You’re going to have a communications disaster zone”.’
13:31 Cummings says by the autumn of 2020 he and the PM ‘disagreed on nearly everything’ when it came to Covid. He says he spent his time instead on mass testing, the defence review, and the economy.
13:29 On government communications: ‘It doesn’t matter if you have great people doing communications if the Prime Minister changes his mind ten times a day.’ Cummings claims that Johnson would call up journalists and contradict what he said in private in Downing Street. ‘The communications problems were a consequence of bad decisions and bad management.’
13:27 On Covid in care homes: ‘Was this taken seriously by No. 10? The answer is obviously “no”, there wasn’t any kind of proper plan… It’s clear in retrospect that it’s completely catastrophic, what happened.’
13:15 Katy Balls: We are now over three hours into the session and Dominic Cummings has just made the most serious allegation yet. And — surprise, surprise — it relates to Matt Hancock. Cummings has accused Hancock of misleading the Prime Minister over plans to protect care home residents. He claims Hancock ‘categorically told’ them in March that individuals would be tested for Covid before returning from hospital to care homes. This, he says, did not happen: ‘It was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to care homes.’
13:09 Katy Balls: There has been plenty so far in this session questioning the Prime Minister’s judgment in terms of the pandemic response. But what of how he governs? Cummings appeared to offer an insight into this when discussing the reasons for his departure from government. He says that he told Johnson he wanted to leave as the Prime Minister was ‘more frightened of me having the power to stop the chaos than you are of the chaos’.
In reply, he alleges that the Prime Minister said chaos wasn’t so bad as it means people look to him for leadership. Given that Johnson’s No. 10 is often known for infighting and plot lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a soap opera, it raises questions about whether this chaotic environment is one that Johnson actually wants.
13:03 Hancock promised the PM that patients discharged into care homes would be tested upon leaving hospital, according to Cummings. Johnson was shocked to find that hadn’t been happening when he returned to work after his Covid illness.
12:57 Katy Balls: The character assassination of Matt Hancock continues. After saying there were ’15 to 20’ reasons that the Health Secretary should have been sacked, Cummings has just told MPs that the Prime Minister came very close to doing so. He claims that Johnson nearly did in April but ‘fundamentally just wouldn’t do it’ even though most in No. 10 wanted him gone. The allegations against Hancock have surprised Tory MPs and Hancock’s allies. There is a sense that he will need to offer some response to the claims made against him.
12:53 Cummings said he considered resigning. He told the Prime Minister: ‘This whole system is chaos, this building is chaos… but you are more frightened of me having the power to stop the chaos than the chaos itself.’ The former aide says that Boris Johnson laughed and agreed, saying chaos meant everyone in government had to look to the PM for leadership.
12:50 Cummings claims Johnson came close to firing Hancock last April, adding ‘there is no good reason for keeping him’.
12:49 Isabel Hardman: So many figures across government are being hit in this evidence session, but it is by now very clear that Cummings’s number one target is Matt Hancock. He is repeatedly accusing the Health Secretary of lying and saying he is guilty of ‘criminal, disgraceful behaviour’. He is also dragging the then cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill into the row, claiming he also thought Hancock was lying.
The committee will almost certainly want to hear from Sedwill. But Hancock is already down to give evidence in a fortnight. That feels like far too long a time in politics for the Health Secretary, who is hardly reticent when it comes to interviews and the like, to keep his counsel given what is being alleged using parliamentary privilege today.
12:45 Committee member and Labour MP Dawn Butler chooses to focus on the use of data by the company Faculty which is run by the Cummings’s allies, brothers Marc and Ben Warner.
12:36 He says the government failed to communicate ‘the stick and carrot’: ministers failed to explain the importance of self-isolating but also failed to offer people adequate sick pay when self-isolating.
12:35 Cummings on Hancock: ‘The cabinet secretary said to the Prime Minister in almost the first meeting when he came back [from hospital]: “Prime Minister, the British system is not set up to deal with a secretary of state who repeatedly lies in meetings”.’ Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt reminds Cummings that he has the luxury of speaking under parliamentary privilege but makes clear that these are very serious allegations.
12:29 Cummings says test and trace was hampered by human rights legislation and EU data laws, which made contact tracing difficult: ‘EU data law and GDPR basically means all of this stuff is illegal’.
12:24 The former aide again criticises Matt Hancock, this time his ‘stupid’ test and trace target of 100,000 tests a day. Cummings states that Hancock should have been fired for prioritising resources on an abstract target rather than ‘building the thing properly’.
12:22 Cummings says ‘the core of government basically collapsed’ when Boris Johnson contracted Covid with supply chains effectively collapsing after the pandemic hit countries abroad.
12:20 The session resumes with the focus on test and trace system. Cummings claims that even in late March Public Health England was saying there is ‘no way’ the UK could do test and trace as practiced in East Asia — something Cummings and others ‘pushed back on.’
12:18 James Forsyth: Dominic Cummings is trying to do two things in this appearance. He is both trying to offer criticisms of the way Boris Johnson handled this crisis — pointing out he downplayed it and quipped about being injected with it live on TV — and to set out how the broader Whitehall system failed. But the problem is that these two points cut against each other. As Cummings himself admits, ‘If you had dropped Bill Gates into that job on 1 March, the most competent people in the world, there is no doubt they would have had a complete nightmare’.
Cummings has repeatedly and with much force criticised ‘groupthink’ in Sage and in government more broadly. But the question of how to tackle this problem is less clear. Cummings is an enthusiast for more transparency, and clearly Sage benefitted from the contributions of outside experts he brought in. But this desire for transparency also cuts against the idea of having a ‘dictator’ style figure in Whitehall to handle the crisis, as Cummings suggested.
12:06 The committee meeting is currently taking a 15 minute recess. In the meantime, Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are battling it out at Prime Minister’s Questions with the latter asking if the PM agrees with Cumming that the ‘government failed when the public needed it most’. Johnson says the public inquiry will look at this and that Starmer is ‘fixated on the rearview mirror.’
11:59 Cummings says he was ‘really frightened’ about criticising the original Covid strategy in early March prior to lockdown being adopted. Says the data scientists convinced him that ‘basically the Sage groupthink is wrong’ — Cummings added that if he had changed the government strategy earlier ‘thousands of people may still be alive’.
11:55 The former chief special adviser said that even as late as 18 March 2020, Sage was still not unanimous on the need to lock down the country. After that meeting, Cummings says health department officials were still confused as to why they needed to lock down given that cases would simply surge back once the lockdown was lifted.
11:51 Cummings says that for all the criticisms of the current government, at least the pandemic did not occur with the hung parliament of 2017-2019: ‘If you imagine that parliament colliding with what happened in January 2020… if that broken parliament had limped and confronted this crisis… frankly the whole system would have melted down and fallen about.’
11:48 The former aide claims ‘all senior people’, including the chief medical officer, would criticise the scientific advice received at the beginning of the pandemic. Cummings says Boris Johnson has made mistakes but that ‘the system let him down.’
11:44 He explains proper modelling did not happen until April, with discussions on 13 and 14 March revealing that the UK was far further along the curve for Covid cases than had previously been feared. Cummings says the original No. 10 data system was just him using a whiteboard. NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens would give him ICU figures on scraps of paper, which Cummings would write on the whiteboard and use his iPhone calculator to work out how fast cases were doubling.
65/ 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 pic.twitter.com/IRl0M3swSl
— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) May 26, 2021
11:39 Cummings says in early March 2020 the NHS was still running off an outdated system to track Covid data numbers. He explained that by the time he came back after his illness, a greatly improved system had been introduced which ‘completely transformed decision making’.
11:38 Katy Balls: Would a dictator have fixed the government’s pandemic response? That’s the suggestion from Cummings. Comparing government decision-making during the pandemic to a Spiderman meme (with everyone suggesting someone else responsible), he says it would have worked better if there was one central figure in charge, ideally a ‘type of dictator’ in power. This person ought to have come from a scientific background.
11:32 The former aide says the problem in Whitehall is that ministers cannot fire officials. He says it would have been preferable to have had a ‘dictator’ in charge of the pandemic response. He says that if he had been prime minister, he would have put his data scientist Mark Warner in charge of everything, giving him ‘kingly authority’ over Whitehall.
11:28 Cummings says his request to No. 10 to review the records of his official diary was rejected by Downing Street ahead of today’s meeting.
11:25 Cummings says that between July and December 2019 he did ask officials about the government’s risk register — its plan for the most likely catastrophes that could befall the country. He adds: ‘Many of the plans seemed to fall short of what was needed… I think the process around them, as with the pandemic plan, is not open. There is not a culture of talking to outside experts.’ He also called for a total review of risk register plans, which are kept secret from the public, saying: ‘It should be open by default and only closed for specific things.’
11:24 Cummings declines Greg Clark’s repeated invitations to hand over his phone to disclose his conversations with journalists but adds: ‘In principle, I am in favour of maximum transparency in this process’.
11:19 Cummings is asked if he ever engaged in ‘unauthorised briefings’ to which he replies that before the 2019 election he had ‘a lot’ of engagement with the media but that in January 2020 he stopped talking to most journalists.
He says this drove journalists ‘mad’ and that of his 100-hour working weeks in No. 10 ‘less than 1 per cent’ of that time was talking to the media. He did however give guidance to BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg as the BBC has ‘a special place’ in the media landscape, particularly during a pandemic. He says he spoke to her ‘once every three or four weeks.’ Cummings says he did talk to media in an unauthorised capacity as ‘the last thing’ he wanted was to involve the Prime Minister.
11:17 Katy Balls: The list of characters on the receiving end of Dominic Cumming’s criticism is growing by the minute: Matt Hancock, Mark Sedwill, Boris Johnson, Carrie Symonds, himself. But there is one man who so far has escaped the rough edge of his tongue: Rishi Sunak.
So far the former Downing Street adviser has been on a positive charm offensive when it comes to the Chancellor. Despite numerous reports that Sunak is the chief lockdown hawk in cabinet (pushing against tight restrictions at times), Cummings says it is ‘wrong’ to say Sunak tried to block lockdown. He also praised the Chancellor and his team for being very competent — which meant he left them to it when it came to Treasury schemes such as furlough. Although there are rumours that Cummings would like his former boss Michael Gove in No. 10 (Gove is yet to be mentioned), it’s clear that Cummings still holds a high opinion of Sunak.
11:10 The former aide criticised the machine of government: ‘In any sensible rational government, 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.’
11:07 Cummings says ‘I knew that Rishi and his team were extremely competent’ which is why he left the Treasury to devise furlough and instead focus on the health department. He adds there were conversations at the time about a bond crisis or a sterling crisis on top of the health crisis. There were meetings involving the Chancellor, Prime Minister and others but that the Chancellor ‘completely supported’ Cummings in ‘accelerating through to Plan B’ i.e. a lockdown.
11:05 Cummings says if they had tried to optimise for the short-term economy it wouldn’t have worked as ‘the public will lock themselves down… there will be some kind of lockdown whatever happens.’
11:02 Rebecca Long-Bailey asks if anyone in government tried to trade off lives with preserving economic activity. Cummings says Johnson’s view throughout January to March was that the real danger was the measures to counter Covid.
10:59 Cummings accuses Hancock of lying, saying ‘there are numerous examples’.
10:58 Cummings says he described the department of health as a ‘smoking ruin’ because its procurement system was ‘completely hopeless’ with no emergency systems in place. He references an incident where the department had been turning down ventilators because the price was too high as the pandemic began. ‘The whole system was like wading through treacle’ with no ‘emergency fast track process to deal with these kind of things.’
10:57 Isabel Hardman: Cummings has previously objected to journalists describing his behaviour as being like throwing hand grenades. Presumably this is because he thinks hand grenades are insufficiently powerful weapons. He has just fired a rocket at Matt Hancock, telling the committee that the Health Secretary ‘should have been fired for at least 15 or 20 things’, and that he ‘said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired’. He was even asked by Rosie Cooper MP whether ministers should face sarges for corporate manslaughter, and paused dramatically, before saying: ‘I don’t know about that’.
This is not a huge surprise: we were expecting Hancock to come under fire and indeed the Health Secretary is known to suspect that Cummings was behind a lot of the briefings against him last year, including suggestions that he was going to be moved.
10:53 Cummings praises Rishi Sunak and his team for creating the furlough scheme in a few days: ‘They had to completely pull that out of nothing… there wasn’t any plan.’
10:51 Cummings says Matt Hancock should have been ‘fired for at least 15 to 20’ different things. He explained: ‘there were many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels’ that were let down by senior people at the department of health.
10:49 Katy Balls: Now Cummings comes for Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary who left his role last year. Cummings claims that the former top civil servant suggested in meetings in March that people could hold ‘chicken pox’ style parties to help people get Covid so as to reach some form of herd immunity. Cummings said that he intervened at the time and told Sedwill, ‘this chicken pox analogy is not right,’ before his team explained to the civil servant that the virus was spreading exponentially and was lethal to many. It’s worth noting that there was little love lost between the Vote Leave team and Sedwill when in government.
10:44 There was a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’ about when the first peak of Covid would occur — the lack of testing capacity meant ‘we didn’t realise’ until after lockdown how bad the situation was, Cummings explains. Claims the lack of urgency was partly due to faults in the reasonable worst-case planning system.
10:41 Cummings says his lockdown plan of 14 March could have been developed six weeks earlier if Sage’s modelling had been made public
10:38 Isabel Hardman: We are just an hour into Cummings’s testimony, and he is starting to shift from repeated apologies about what he feels he got wrong, and into the more familiar territory of settling scores with old foes. He told the committee that there was a day when part of Downing Street was preoccupied with whether the US was going to bomb Iraq, another part was concerned about the possibility of locking down, and Carrie Symonds who he described as ‘the Prime Minister’s girlfriend’ (she was his fiancée by this point) was ‘going crackers’ about a newspaper story about the couple’s dog.
He then claimed that Helen McNamara, the head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office, came into a meeting room with Cummings and said ‘I’ve been told for years that there is a whole plan for this, there is no plan. We are in huge trouble. I’ve come through here to the Prime Minister’s office to say I think we are absolutely fucked’. It is worth noting that Cummings and McNamara had clashed over his treatment of special advisers.
The tenor of his evidence so far is one of him trying to urge the government to go further, to be more organised and failing to get others to listen to him.
10:37 Cummings says he is ‘terribly sorry’ they did not lock down earlier and it was a ‘surreal’ decision to take to lockdown the country adding ‘the whole thing seemed like an out of control movie’. He says he had to tell cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill to stop comparing Covid to chickenpox as chickenpox doesn’t spread exponentially.
10:35 Cummings told the committee: ‘I bitterly regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button when I did… My mental state at the time was, on the one hand, that you could know from the last week of February a whole bunch of things was wrong… but I was incredibly frightened about the consequences of me pulling the emergency string saying, “the official plan is wrong,” because what if I’m wrong?’
10:30 Katy Balls: Ahead of this appearance, the expectation was that it would be the department of health that received the most criticism from Dominic Cummings. However, there appears to be plenty to go around. Cummings has just told MPs that ‘the Cabinet Office is terrifyingly shit’, citing an incident 12 on March when he messaged the Prime Minister and told him guidance needed to be issued to stay at home.
10:26 Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s girlfriend, was demanding that the No. 10 press office deal with a Times story about Dilyn the dog at the same time as Downing Street staff were trying to co-ordinate Covid and the Middle East airstrike (see below).
10:25 ‘The Cobra system just didn’t work’ — he explains the government was trying to co-ordinate a bombing strike in the Middle East with the US at the same time as Cobra was trying to deal with Covid. Boris Johnson was persuaded not to join the US in the planned airstrike.
10:22 Cummings says it was assumed in early March that the British public would not accept a lockdown and that they would not accept Asian-style track and trace systems but those assumptions were false.
10:19 Cummings criticises the lack of transparency in Sage — he says it was ‘catastrophic’ to make its modelling secret and says he was the one pushing to make it public.
10:17 Cummings says as late as 11 March the fundamental assumption of Sage remained ‘we can’t do lockdown, we can’t do suppression’ as it would mean a second peak later in the year. He claims there was not a proper plan in place at that stage and that he wanted the government to announce the following day — 12 March — household quarantine and a ‘stay at home’ message.
10:13 James Forsyth: Dominic Cummings included himself in the government’s failure in his opening answers at the select committee today. He said that ‘when the public needed us most’ the government failed and that he was ‘sorry for the mistakes that were made, and for my own mistakes’. He expressed his regret that he had not ‘red teamed’ the government’s pandemic planning earlier and that the flaws in the pandemic plan had only been realised at the end of February. He pointed out that the Prime Minister was on holiday in the middle of February.
Cummings, to Greg Clark’s evident surprise, denied that he had that much power in No. 10 saying, ‘my authority to change things in Downing Street was extremely limited’. He claimed that Johnson was convinced that Cobra was another swine flu-style scare and wanted to be injected with it live on TV to show it wasn’t dangerous and so him chairing Cobra would not have helped.
10:12 Cummings tells Jeremy Hunt that mass events continued into March as official advice was that their cancellation would simply push people into pubs instead. He claims that no one in the department of health foresaw that pubs would close at this stage: ‘the logic was completely flawed’.
10:09 ‘Herd immunity was regarded as an unavoidable fact, the only question is one of timing’.
10:06 On herd immunity: ‘The term can be used by different people to mean different things… at the time the whole plan was based on the assumption that there would be no vaccines in 2020… the logical approach, therefore, is to introduce measures that delay the peak [of Covid]’.
10:02 Cummings raises the issue of a possible lab leak ‘I was completely wrong about the timing of this but it does need to be addressed’.
09:58 Dominic Cummings is asked about a reference to coronavirus that was added to a blog on his website last year. Cummings dismisses ‘funny media stories written about this’ as being ‘all false’. The PM’s former adviser says that the reference was added when he copied and pasted over a section he had previously written on his computer but had not posted online. ‘Not a single word of what I wrote was changed,’ he insists.
09:53 Johnson asked for Chris Whitty to inject him with Covid in early 2020 according to Cummings. The PM also allegedly described it ‘as the new scare story… He saw it as the new swine flu’ which Cummings suggested showed a lack of seriousness about the pandemic.
09:51 The contents of Cobra meetings were continually leaked, according to Cummings. He claimed that discussions in XO cabinet committee meetings to deal with Brexit also ‘leaked like a sieve continually’.
09:50 Cummings says that many Cobra meetings weren’t worth attending, as they involved ‘a lot of PowerPoint presentations’.
09:46 Cummings criticises procurement issues — he says he had to miss key procurement meetings as he was attending other Covid procurement meetings to sort out those issues.
09:33 Cummings apologises to the public and says the government let them down.
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