“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.”
Dominic Cummings’ opening statement to the Covid-19: Lessons Learned Committee of the House of Commons is an attention-grabbing one.
The rest of his evidence was no less damning of Westminster’s response in the early days of the pandemic.
It revealed a government in which discussions at Cobra meetings, supposedly the most secure and confidential of briefings, were routinely leaked to the media. It showed a PM who went away on holiday as the crisis broke. The Government failed to follow the logic of the science presented to it and took weeks to understand the pandemic’s capacity to overwhelm the NHS.
And – as Mr Cummings said – ‘unbelievably’ we have a government whose response to the crisis at a critical time was put on the back burner to deal with a complaint by the PM’s fiancé about a disobliging story about her dog.
CUMMINGS HAS PAPER TRAIL
Suppose Mr Cummings, like so many others, made his assertion without a paper trail. In that case, his remarks could be interpreted as so much self-serving nonsense and a study in revenge. However, he has the paperwork, the email trail, the journal entries, the secret WhatsApp chats to back up his account.
His story got extra heft by his clear expression of regret that he had not obtained an independent view of the Government’s data earlier. When he did deliver data to those outside Downing Street, the extent of the crisis became apparent.
He made it clear the Government could have got better insight sooner and taken steps towards lockdown six weeks before it did.
The Prime Minister maintained ‘this new swine-flu thing’ was less of a risk than economic damage from overreaction throughout February, even as infections and deaths escalated.
However, the data was wrong. According to Mr Cummings, had the models been checked against live data from Intensive Care Units concerning Covid infections, it would’ve been evident the models presented to the Government and upon which it based its decisions were totally flawed.
In a withering assessment, Dominic Cummings said the more people criticised the plan, or lack of one, the more people on the inside believed their critics lacked knowledge.
If there’d been proper scrutiny and interrogation of what Ministers were being told, “we would have figured out at least six weeks earlier that there was an alternative plan”.
The original plan, he said, was “complete garbage”.
More than that, the Department of Health’s ‘plan’ amounted to no more than a press release.
The Department of Health was ’a smoking ruin’, he claimed. There was no plan for shielding, support, emergency procurement. The Department of Health failed to appreciate the size of the crisis and stuck to its normal procurement channels until it was almost out of PPE. The Department of Health refused to buy ventilators because their price had risen.
He suggested a proposal – seriously advanced for consideration – that people hold the equivalent of ‘chickenpox parties’ was met with disbelief by scientists who had to point out that chickenpox was not killing hundreds of thousand people worldwide.
HANCOCK BRANDED A LIAR
Dominic Cummings turned personal fire onto Matt Hancock, who remains the Secretary of State for Health.
He accused Mr Hancock of lying and that the Health Secretary’s conduct merited his instant dismissal.
He had earlier mentioned the Health Secretary’s denial that the Government pursued a herd immunity policy that formed a vital element of the Government’s then-approach.
Dominic Cummings said Matt Hancock “for lying to everybody in multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly”.
Crucially, Mr Cummings said the Cabinet Secretary (Mark Sedwill, the UK’s most senior civil servant) told him and the Prime Minister that he did not trust Matt Hancock to be truthful. He had notes of the meeting in which that remark was made.
Mark Sedwill, Mr Cummings claimed, told Boris Johnson that the cabinet system was not set up to deal with a minister like Matt Hancock, who – he alleged Mr Sedwill said – repeatedly lied in meetings.
He alleged Mr Hancock deliberately delayed implementing a proper track and trace system to meet an arbitrary testing target.
JOHNSON DUCKS THE QUESTIONS
As the Committee took a break, Prime Minister’s Questions opened in the House of Commons.
Asked about Dominic Cummings’ evidence, the Prime Minister failed to deny key allegations from it when asked by opposition leader Kier Starmer.
Instead, Boris Johnson deflected the questions by referring to a public inquiry. Mr Johnson refused to give a date for that inquiry’s start.
Mr Johnson seemed to decide poking the hornets’ nest would invite further disclosures from Mr Cummings, more damning than the testimony already given.
The picture Mr Cummings painted was chaos at the heart of Government, institutional complacency, lack of expertise in the key departments, and – tellingly – a Prime Minister and Cabinet with only a tenuous grasp on the urgency of the situation.
Given a chance to plan for different scenarios and allocate adequate resources, the Prime Minister and other key ministers preferred to look on the sunny side, hope for the best, and expect something to turn up.
The PM took his opportunity to have a holiday.
Nothing Mr Cummings said was more telling than his revelation that the reason the UK did not enter lockdown sooner was the Government – including the civil service – did not have a plan. The part of the civil service supposed to deal with civil emergencies couldn’t cope because it lacked expertise in the response it was supposed to handle. Planning was always based on a peak of the virus twelve weeks in the future from the date of any meeting.
The pandemic’s first wave peaked in late April. The Government, as late as March 14, planned for a peak in June.
JOHNSON LIKE THE MAYOR IN JAWS
Mr Cummings’ account of a shielding plan drawn up over two all-night brainstorming sessions after the lockdown’s announcement was hair-raising. At the eleventh hour it emerged the UK hadn’t taken account of vulnerable groups’ protection.
As the pandemic raged and demands made to put a brake on overseas travel, Dominic Cummings claimed the PM didn’t want one. He painted a picture of a media-obsessed Boris Johnson swayed by press campaigns against taking preventative action.
Mr Cummings explained Mr Johnson’s behaviour was like the Mayor’s in Jaws. He wanted to keep the beach open, even as the shark ate the swimmers.
On a broader topic, Dominic Cummings criticised a ‘crackers’ political system that allowed people like him and Boris Johnson to exercise such power during an emergency when they were unqualified to deal with one.
Mr Cummings’ tarter observations about the ability of the UK’s political parties included a stinging attack on how political parties select and support their leaders.
To summarise his view: he suggested the problem with the political system in this country is that voters had a choice between people like Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson at the last election.
He concluded from that statement that the parties need to look at themselves to find out why they put ‘that sort of person’ forward for office.
That’s an issue beyond the current inquiry’s scope. ‘Teflon Al Johnson’ will be very grateful it is after Wednesday’s hearing.
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