Dominic Cummings lifts curtain on government coronavirus response

In a select committee appearance on 26th May, Dominic Cummings shed considerable light on the inner workings of government, with a focus on its Covid-19 strategy. Cummings, the former Chief Advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, made the revelations in an appearance before a joint inquiry into the Coronavirus pandemic conducted by the health and social care and the science and technology parliamentary committees. The implications of Cummings’ testimony are incredibly wide-reaching, so this article focuses on some of his bigger claims and what they could mean for the government going forward.

Significant media attention has been drawn to Cummings’ sharp denunciations of his former colleagues, specifically Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his former boss Boris Johnson. Particular vitriol was reserved for Hancock, whom Cummings described as deceptive and essentially useless, claiming the minister “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things.”

Cummings alleged the Health Secretary gave false assurances in Cabinet meetings, lying about the Department of Health’s initial pandemic contingency plan, the procurement of personal protective equipment and the availability of appropriate care for patients. He also suggested that Hancock interfered with the roll-out of test and trace infrastructure, delaying it until he hit could his target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day.

As an example of mismanagement under Hancock, Cummings testified that the Prime Minister was shocked by the situation in Britain’s care homes upon his return to work following his own bout of Covid in April 2020. At the time, government rules did not require a negative test before residents could be discharged from hospitals, despite Hancock assuring the PM he would mandate them. This may well have facilitated the unnecessary spread of coronavirus to countless elderly and vulnerable, contributing to the official care home death toll of over 40,000.

Boris Johnson also received serious criticism, with his former advisor asserting the PM was “unfit for the job” and “got some very serious things wrong.” Cummings alleged that Johnson regarded Covid as a “scare story” back in February 2020 and floated the idea of Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty injecting him with coronavirus on live television to demonstrate the low threat. He also confirmed rumours that the Prime Minister said he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than order a second lockdown.

Cummings’ ire was not solely reserved for his former colleagues, but also for the organisation of government as a whole, describing its management of frontline workers as akin to “lions led by donkeys.” Memorably, he also invoked the popular meme in which clones of Spider-Man point at one another (pictured below) to describe a culture of blame in government.

Twitter bursts with memes as Dominic Cummings provides evidence to MPs on  Government Covid-19 effort | Daily Mail Online

Pictured: Dominic Cummings’ use of the ‘Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man’ meme resulted in the circulation of images such as this on social media on Wednesday. Image: MailOnline/ Twitter

Cummings made clear there was “fundamental misunderstanding” in early 2020 of the threat posed by coronavirus and about the UK’s overall pandemic preparedness. He also suggested that many in government, including Boris Johnson, believed “the real danger [was] not the health danger,” rather the impact on the economy, hence resisting calls from academics and medical advisors to put the country into an early lockdown like many other countries.

The former advisor appeared to confirm that the government’s coronavirus strategy in early 2020 was indeed based on the principle of ‘herd immunity’ – that the virus should be allowed to spread unchecked until a high enough proportion of the population contracted and developed immunity from it, making future outbreaks less likely. Cummings went so far as to reveal that some advisors urged the Prime Minister to advocate “chicken pox parties” to spread the virus and develop herd immunity. This contradicts months of government communications, as senior ministers have repeatedly denied that herd immunity models were ever seriously considered.

Cummings argued that the government was woefully unprepared for a heath emergency on the scale we’ve seen. He recounted that then-Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara came to him in March 2020 to complain that there was essentially “no plan” to deal with a pandemic of this scale, confiding that she feared the UK was “absolutely fucked” and “heading for disaster.” Ultimately, Cummings agreed that the government he formerly belonged to had failed and that “tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to.” 

The government was quick to respond to Cummings, predictably denying all allegations. Hancock insisted that Cummings’ assertions were “unsubstantiated” and that he remained “straight with people in public and private throughout” the pandemic.” The Prime Minister also denied his former employee’s version of events, arguing they didn’t “bear any relation to reality.” Hancock is due to give evidence to same inquiry in a few weeks’ time, which will provide him with the opportunity to more respond more comprehensively.

COVID-19: Health Secretary Matt Hancock runs away from questions about  Dominic Cummings | Politics News | Sky News

Pictured: Health Secretary Matt Hancock ran away from reporters in the morning before Cummings’ committee appearance. Image: Sky News

The material impact of Cummings’ statement is perhaps yet to be seen, but has already fuelled the opposition’s call for a formal inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. During Prime Minister’s Questions on 26 May, as Cummings continued answering questions, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer pressed Johnson on the need for such an inquiry. However, Johnson rejected Starmer’s demands, arguing such an inquiry would be a waste of government time and resources at a time in which the country was still grappling with the virus.

The final significant question hanging over Cummings’ committee appearance is why he felt the need to attack his own former government so unequivocally. Since his departure from No. 10, the strategist has been increasingly critical of the government on his Twiiter account, using the platform to publish photographs of whiteboards used to map out the government’s coronavirus response.

YouGov polling reveals that only 14% of the British public trust Cummings to tell the truth about government pandemic planning, compared to a still paltry figure of 38% for Johnson. It therefore goes without saying that many will have viewed Cummings’ revelations with scepticism, questioning whether he may have had ulterior motives or left out critical bits of information in an attempt to frame the narrative – a pursuit he has been accused of in the past, particularly in his leadership of the Vote Leave campaign.

Dominic Cummings's whiteboard: The pandemic plan B decoded

Pictured: Dominic Cummings used his Twitter account to offer an insight into the UK’s coronavirus response, revealing whiteboards used to map out the govenrment’s plan of action. Image: The Telegraph/ Twitter

Header image: Image: Politico/ UK Parliament