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Dominic Cummings has laid bare the “surreal” chaos in Downing Street in March last year as the government grappled with the Covid pandemic, describing the situation as “like a kind of out-of-control movie”.
During an extraordinary evidence session to MPs at Westminster on Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s former chief aide said ministers and advisers had disastrously failed the public, and gave damning assessments of the role of senior figures, including the prime minister.
He portrayed Johnson as easily distracted, “a thousand times” too obsessed with the media, and too late to grasp the gravity of the pandemic.
Cummings said that in January and February 2020, as news of the pandemic emerged from Wuhan, ministers and senior officials fell victim to what he described as “literally a classic historical example of group-think in action”.
He said the prime minister himself had repeatedly played down the seriousness of the disease, comparing it to swine flu – and even claimed officials had deliberately kept Johnson out of emergency Cobra meetings.
“Certainly, the view of various officials inside No 10 was if we have the PM chair Cobra meetings, and he just tells everyone ‘don’t worry about it, I’m going to get [England’s chief medical officer] 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 planning.”
Cummings said much of Downing Street’s attention in the early part of February was focused on other issues, including carrying out a cabinet reshuffle, and that in mid-February several key figures were “literally skiing”.
He claimed that only in mid-March was an initial plan to pursue “herd immunity”, by allowing the virus to spread but delaying the peak of the outbreak, belatedly abandoned.
Herd immunity “was the whole logic of all the discussions in January and February and early March”, Cummings told the committee.
While No 10 has repeatedly rejected this was an aim, Cummings said it was simply seen as the better of two terrible options, because at the time officials believed a lockdown could not work as it was “inconceivable” the public would accept it.
He even claimed the cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill, had suggested the prime minister should publicly advocate “chicken pox parties”, encouraging people to deliberately infect themselves with the virus.
Cummings said that in discussions with Ben Warner, a data scientist he brought into Downing Street, and several outside experts, he came to the realisation that the herd immunity plan would be disastrous, overwhelming the NHS and leading to thousands of deaths.
He described what he called a “surreal” day on 12 March 2020, as he tried to press the prime minister to change course.
Johnson was repeatedly distracted from Covid, Cummings claimed, including by security meetings about whether to join US bombing raids in the Middle East – and his partner, Carrie Symonds, going “completely crackers” about a newspaper story about her dog, Dilyn.
On the evening of the following day, Cummings said deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara, walked into the prime minister’s office to say, “I’ve come through here to tell you all, ‘I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for disaster. I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.’”
He said Number 10 had been told, of the herd immunity approach, “we don’t even have a plan for burying the bodies”.
Cummings described that tumultuous period as “like a scene from Independence Day, with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken, I need a new plan.”
He was repeatedly dismissive during the hearing of his former boss, whom he helped into Downing Street. Cummings even said there was something “extremely, extremely badly wrong” with a political system that presented voters at the 2019 general election with a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Cummings said it was “crackers” that he himself had been allowed to play such a senior role, and described government as “lions led by donkeys, over and over again.”
Johnson’s former aide apologised to MPs on the cross-party science and technology committees for his own role in failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation and press for the government to abandon the herd immunity plan.
“There’s no doubt in retrospect that, yes, it was a huge failing of mine, and I deeply regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did,” he said.
However, Cummings claimed: “I was incredibly frightened about the consequences of me pulling a massive emergency string, and saying, the official plan is going to kill thousands of people.”
Source: The Guardian
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