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Dominic Cummings Says “When Public Needed Us Most, Government Failed” And Apologises To Families Of Covid Victims

Dominic Cummings is giving evidence to MPs about how his former boss Boris Johnson handled the coronavirus pandemic (Parliamentlive.TV)

7 min read

Dominic Cummings began his evidence to MPs on the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic with the stark admission that “when the public needed us most, the government failed”.

The Prime Minister’s former aide made an emotional mea culpa over how Number 10 dealt with coronavirus last year at the start of his much-awaited select committee appearance this morning.

He began by saying: “The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisors like me, fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.

"When the public needed us most, the government failed.”

Apologising for the deaths caused by the virus he added: “And I'd like to say to all the families of those who died, unnecessarily, how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made, my own mistakes.”

Elsewhere in his mammoth session in front of MPs, Cummings said:

  • Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February "in any way, shape or form” and a lot of key people "were literally skiing in the middle of February".
  • Johnson wanted to be infected with Covid-19 by Chris Whitty live on television in a bid to reassure the public.
  • The decision to allow the Cheltenham Gold Cup to go ahead at the start of the pandemic was because the government feared cancelling it would push people into pubs, and there was no plan at the time to shut hospitality.
  • Health secretary Matt Hancock "should have 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".
  • Suggested he was "not a smart person" and he couldn't understand the models being discussed at the Sage meetings he was attending.
  • Criticised the government for telling the public "herd immunity" was never their plan, saying he was "completely baffled as to why Number 10 is trying to deny that, because we all thought that was the official plan".
  • Labelled the Cabinet Office "terrifyingly shit" at the start of the pandemic.
  • Said as far into the crisis as March 19 there was no plan on how to shield the vulnerable, saying "the shielding plan was literally hacked together in two all-nighters".
  • Called it "crackers" that Johnson had been able to become PM in the first place, but an election where the choice is between him and Jeremy Corbyn "is obviously a system that's gone extremely badly wrong".

Cummings said he regrets he "did not follow up" and "push" on pandemic preparations at the end of January, adding that it was not until the end of February that those in government realised the assurances given on "brilliant" pandemic preparations "were basically completely hollow".

He said the government "didn't act like [coronavirus] was the most important thing in February, never mind in January”.

"The government itself and Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February on this in any way, shape or form”, Cummings added.

"Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February."

Cummings acknowledged and apologised for his own role in the delayed response while at the centre of government. 

"I did not follow up on this and push it the way I should've done," he said. 

"We were told in Number 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.

But Cummings said greater scrutiny should have been given to those plans as early as January. 

"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,” he admitted. Running through the timeline in government as the virus travelled across the world, Cummings said he had "mounting panic" in early March, and was pushing the government to announce individuals should stay at home if they had symptoms and households should quarantine on March 11.

"There was push-back from within the system against advising the following day, ie the 12th, to say stay at home if you've got symptoms," he told MPs.

"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."

He added: "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."

The ex-adviser’s evidence session follows a week of claims and counter-briefing over what really went on in Number 10 as Covid-19 hit the UK in early 2020.

Cummings has spent much of a 65-tweet thread in recent days attacking the PM, health secretary Matt Hancock and other senior advisers for pursuing a strategy of “herd immunity” against the virus, only to change tack to try and suppress its spread through lockdowns, a decision that was taken too late.

His most recent post, sent an hour before he was due to appear at the joint inquiry by the Health and Science Select Committees, appears to show a whiteboard inside Johnson’s Downing Street study with the competing plans to deal with the pandemic, to which he promises “details later”.

But Cummings has been criticised for claiming Hancock and others “lied” to the media about pursuing and then abandoning herd immunity, as it was reported this morning he sent messages to ministers telling them to deny this was the government’s strategy.

It had been reported over the weekend he would use today’s mammoth four-hour hearing to accuse the PM of missing key emergency Cobra meetings at the start of the crisis to try and finish a long-overdue book about Shakespeare.

Overnight it was reported Cummings will claim Johnson called Covid-19 "kung flu" in private, and considered being injected with coronavirus live on television to show it was nothing to be scared of.

This morning cabinet minister Grant Shapps denied Johnson ever used that term, telling LBC: "Never, no.”

The transport secretary said he had never heard the PM say he wanted to be publicly infected with the virus, and sought to discredit Cummings' account. "It's a bit of a circus from someone who was there at the time and had the facility and the ability to influence a lot of these decisions, of course," he added. 

Shapps, who had defended the ex-advisor after his controversial lockdown-busting trip to Country Durham last year, admitted the incident had undermined trust in the government's public health message.

"I thought he was right at the time to stand by his family, to go into effective quarantine, and that's what he did," he told the BBC."I accept it was a moment which actually in the public's mind undermined the wider messages and I accept that.

"I thought he was doing what he thought was right by his family at the time."

Asked if Cummings is a liar, the minister replied: "I will leave it to others to judge how reliable a witness that former adviser happens to be.

"What I can tell you is what's happened: for example, previously it was said that the Prime Minister had made comments about not going into another lockdown.

"Not only did we go into a second lockdown in November, we went into a third lockdown in January – indeed we are still coming out of that third lockdown – and that will have saved many lives and given us the chance to get the vaccination into people's arms in the meantime."

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