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Coronavirus

UK PM’s ex-adviser accuses government of COVID-19 failings

Published: Updated:

Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former top adviser, accused government on Wednesday of failing the British public in its early response to the coronavirus pandemic, apologizing to the families of those “who died unnecessarily”.

After leaving Johnson’s team late last year, Cummings has become one of his former boss’s most vocal critics over how the prime minister led his team to tackle in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, describing it as “disastrous”.

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Cummings, who was part of Johnson’s senior team during that period, accused the government of moving too slowly to try to tackle the spread of COVID-19 and health officials of making ill-judged conclusions about the nature of the virus.

The government has repeatedly denied many of his accusations that he has tweeted since leaving, with Johnson’s spokesman saying this week that “at all times we have been guided by the data and the latest evidence”.

Following are the main charges Cummings made against Johnson’s government to a parliamentary committee.

Government failure

Cummings accused Johnson’s government of failing the public by reacting too slowly to the spread of the novel coronavirus, leading to unnecessary deaths.

“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.”

“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 and for my own mistakes.”

Unprepared

“Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February on (COVID) in any way shape or form. Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.

“It wasn’t until the last week of February that there was really any sort of sense of urgency I would say ... in terms of Number 10 and cabinet.”

Late to lockdown

Cummings said Johnson was told on March 14, 2020, he needed to implement a lockdown, but the government did not have a plan.

“On the 14th we said to the prime minister: ‘you are going to have to lockdown’ - but there is no lockdown plan, it doesn’t exist,” Cummings said.

Johnson announced a lockdown on March 23.

Downplaying the new 'swine flu'

Cummings accused Johnson of playing down the threat of the pandemic, saying the prime minister regarded it as just another scare story and that the prime minister offered to be injected with COVID-19 live on television.

“The basic thought was that in February the prime minister regarded this as just a scare story ... he described it as the new swine flu,” Cummings said.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference at 10 Downing Street, on the day of reflection to mark the anniversary of Britain's first coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in London, Britain March 23, 2021.(File photo: Reuters)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds a news conference at 10 Downing Street, on the day of reflection to mark the anniversary of Britain's first coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown, in London, Britain March 23, 2021.(File photo: Reuters)

“The view of various officials inside number 10 was if we have the prime minister chairing COBR (civil contingencies committee) meetings and he just tells everyone it’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, and I’m going to get (Britain’s Chief Medical Officer) Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus ... that would ... not help.”

Herd immunity

Cummings accused the health ministry of believing that so-called herd immunity was inevitable because if the government moved to try to suppress the spread of the coronavirus during the summer of last year, it would only rear its head again in the winter putting the health service under strain.

So, in March last year the government was aiming to establish “herd immunity”, where the virus spreads through the population to increase overall resistance, by September, he said, adding no one thought it was a “good thing”.

He also said the cabinet secretary called on the prime minister to go on television and explain herd immunity by describing it “like the old chicken pox parties”.

The government has repeatedly said that “herd immunity has never been a policy aim or part of our coronavirus strategy”.

Ssecrecy

Cummings described the secrecy surrounding decisions made by a grouping of top scientific advisers to the government as a “catastrophic mistake”.

“I think there’s absolutely no doubt at all that the process by which (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) SAGE (took decisions) was secret, and overall the whole thinking around the strategy was secret, was an absolutely catastrophic mistake because it meant there wasn’t proper scrutiny,” he said.

He said the process of deciding how to tackle the spread of coronavirus in the early days was “closed”, describing it as a “group think bubble” that struggled to change course.

Read more:

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