U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief aide lashed out Wednesday at the government he once served, saying people died “in horrific circumstances” because of authorities’ failed response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a ferocious attack on the competence and honesty of Johnson’s administration, Dominic Cummings claimed the arrival of COVID-19 in early 2020 plunged the government into chaos.
“People did not get the treatment they deserved” as a result, he said. “Many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”
The U.K. has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe, and experienced one of the world’s deepest recessions in 2020 as three successive lockdowns hobbled the economy.
A mass vaccination campaign that started in December has brought infections and fatalities down sharply, but the government acknowledges it will have to answer serious questions at a future public inquiry.
Cummings’ televised testimony to Parliament’s science and health committees, which are investigating Britain’s pandemic response, gave a dramatic taste of what might come out.
He alleged a disastrous series of bad decisions and false assumptions within government in early 2020, saying Johnson initially regarded the virus as “just a scare story. He described it as the new swine flu.”
Cummings said the administration “was not operating on a war footing,” and officials, including the prime minister, even went on holiday in February 2020.
“Lots of people were literally skiing,” Cummings said.
By March, he said the government was consumed by chaos that Cummings said “seemed like an out-of-control movie.”
It was “like a scene from ‘Independence Day’ with Jeff Goldblum saying, ‘The aliens are here and your whole plan is broken,’” Cummings said.
“The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me, disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this,” he said.
Johnson defended the government’s response, saying “to deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult.”
“We have at every stage tried to minimize loss of life, to save lives, to protect the (health service) and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can,” Johnson said in the House of Commons.
One of the architects of the successful campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, Cummings was appointed a top adviser when Johnson became prime minister in 2019. A self-styled political disruptor, he spoke of his desire to radically shake up the government and expressed contempt for the civil service, many politicians and much of the media.
Initially a shadowy figure, Cummings made headlines in May 2020 when newspapers revealed he had driven 250 miles (400 kilometers) across the country after contracting COVID-19, despite a nationwide stay-at-home order. His defense – that he was seeking child care help from relatives in case he got sick – rang hollow to many Britons who had made sacrifices and endured isolation to follow the rules.
Cummings said Wednesday that he hadn’t told the whole truth, saying that was a “terrible mistake.” He said his real motivation in leaving London was his family’s safety, because there had been threats to his London home.
Cummings left his job in November amid a power struggle inside the prime minister’s office.
In recent days, Cummings has used Twitter to direct a torrent of criticism at his former employer. He accuses the government of sticking with a policy of “herd immunity” – allowing the virus to spread through the population while protecting the most vulnerable – until it was too late to prevent draconian lockdowns and many deaths.
He said Wednesday that the government believed – wrongly, it turned out – that the British public would never accept strict lockdown measures, and that locking down would simply lead to a later, steeper peak in deaths.
The government denies that herd immunity through infection was ever its policy.
Cummings also slammed the government’s failure to shut Britain’s borders to keep out the virus, called the country’s initial lack of testing capacity a “disaster,” and said patients with COVID-19 were rashly discharged from hospitals into nursing homes, where thousands died.
He excoriated Health Secretary Matt Hancock, accusing him of lying to the public and saying he “should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things.” Hancock is due to give his own evidence to lawmakers next month.
The government accused Cummings of glossing over the fact that he was one of the most powerful people in the government when key decisions were being made.
“I’ll leave others to determine how reliable a witness to all this he is,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said. “He was there at the time – what his motives would be I will leave to others.”
Cummings said he began “ringing alarm bells” in early March 2020, and apologized for not doing more to change the government’s strategy. Johnson eventually imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 23, and was hospitalized in intensive care with the virus in April 2020.
“If I had acted earlier, then lots of people might still be alive,” Cummings said.
“It was completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position,” he reflected. “It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there.”