Dominic Cummings' blow-by-blow blitzkrieg on the Government

Panic ‘was like an out-of-control movie. Aliens land… and your whole plan is broken’: Dominic Cummings’ blow-by-blow blitzkrieg on the Government

Across a marathon seven hours of evidence to MPs yesterday, Dominic Cummings attempted to eviscerate a government machine he said was completely unprepared for the scale or severity of the coronavirus crisis.

Making his long-awaited appearance before a Commons select committee, the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser unleashed a relentless salvo of astonishing allegations about the individuals and processes he claimed resulted in ‘total system failure’.

He said Boris Johnson, his ministers – particularly the Health Secretary Matt Hancock – and officials all fell ‘disastrously short’ as they grappled to deal with the pandemic.

Mr Cummings began the session with an apology for his own failings and those of the rest of the Government.

He claimed Whitehall complacency in the early part of last year saw senior figures jetting off to the ski slopes as the crisis unfolded.

Mr Cummings likened the panicked scenes in government to those from an ‘out-of-control movie’ similar to 1996 disaster film Independence Day, in which the US is devastated by a surprise alien invasion. And he revealed that at one point, a senior official warned in a message that the country was ‘absolutely f***ed’.

Here, Policy Editor DANIEL MARTIN selects the highlights of one of the most extraordinary Commons appearances for many years:

Ministers fell ‘disastrously short’ of standards

Dominic Cummings began the evidence session by apologising to the British public, saying that ministers, officials – and he himself – had not met the standards that were expected of them.

The former adviser, who left Downing Street last year after a behind-the-scenes power struggle, said: ‘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.’

Across a marathon seven hours of evidence to MPs, Dominic Cummings attempted to eviscerate a government machine he said was completely unprepared for the scale or severity of the coronavirus crisis

Across a marathon seven hours of evidence to MPs yesterday, Dominic Cummings attempted to eviscerate a government machine he said was completely unprepared for the scale or severity of the coronavirus crisis

Dom’s whiteboard of doom: Like a scene from Brexit movie, real Covid battleplan that reveals so much

Dominic Cummings began his day by publishing a photograph of a whiteboard, reportedly in Boris Johnson’s No 10 study, which illustrates the sense of panic at the start of the crisis.

The PM’s former chief adviser said the picture, taken on the evening of March 13 – ten days before the first lockdown – reveals the early stage of the Government’s planning.

It appears to show No 10 was bracing itself for thousands of deaths and that officials even feared they would have to decide ‘who not to save’.

And it reveals that lockdown was seen as a ‘Plan B’, with the preferred plan being to rough out the pandemic.

Here are the key points:

Lockdown only way to save NHS

Officials believed there was no chance of a vaccine being ready in the year 2020, meaning that the only way to prevent a collapse of the NHS would be a ‘lockdown’, under which everyone is told to stay at home and pubs are shut.

Tougher Plan B takes shape

This section lays out the difference between the PM’s original plan – to ride out the pandemic – and a Plan B, under which a ‘full lockdown’ would be imposed to avoid the ‘collapse’ of the NHS. A sketch of a graph suggests Plan B would escape two waves of the virus. 

Boris’s Plan A is fatally flawed

The notes seem to suggest that Mr Johnson’s favoured plan at the time – to attempt to ride out the Covid crisis without imposing a lockdown – would cost as many as 4,000 lives a day at the peak. A further note references ventilators, of which there was an acute shortage in the NHS at the time.

Ban on social contact touted

These three options outline how stringent any social distancing rules may be, with the most serious suggestion being that any contact at all could be made illegal.

Dire life and death decision 

The message ‘Who not to save?’ indicates that it was at least considered that some vulnerable people could be sacrificed to help the rest 

Whitehall was not on a ‘war footing’

As the global crisis mounted in February 2020, there was no sense of urgency in Whitehall – and some senior figures even went on holiday, he said. Mr Cummings told MPs: ‘The Government and No10 was not operating on a war footing in February on this 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 any sort of sense of urgency, I would say.’

Mr Cummings admitted that he was also ‘not on a war footing’ himself in the first half of February as he was dealing with other priorities such as the Cabinet reshuffle and the HS2 railway line.

To top it all, ‘then the PM went away on holiday for two weeks’.

‘Groupthink’ over herd immunity strategy

Mr Hancock will publicly hit back at a Downing Street press conference today where he is expected to directly address the most contentious claims

Mr Cummings said he was concerned about the ‘groupthink’ of government scientists and officials, which led to an early strategy to control but not halt the spread of the virus.

He told MPs that senior figures believed it was inevitable that there would have to be some sort of herd immunity, as there was no plan in place to try to suppress the spread of the virus.

He claimed Sir Mark Sedwill, the then Cabinet Secretary, told the Prime Minister to go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying: ‘It’s like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September.’

The former aide said most people were of the view that the freedom-loving British public would simply not accept the restrictions of a lockdown.

‘One of the critical things that was completely wrong in the whole official thinking, in Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] and in the Department of Health in February/March was first of all the British public will not accept a lockdown, secondly, the British public will not accept what was thought of as a kind of East Asian-style track and trace type system, and the infringement of liberty around that,’ he said.

‘Those two assumptions were completely central to the official plan and were both obviously completely wrong.’

He told MPs the country should have locked down in the first week of March 2020 at the latest, but the ‘official logic’ even on March 17 was that this would only cause a peak of the virus later on, potentially in the winter when the NHS would already be under pressure.

Panic mounts ahead of the first lockdown

In the days leading up to the first Covid lockdown, Mr Cummings described the chaos in Downing Street as like an ‘out-of-control movie’.

He claimed the lack of any action plan was similar to 1996 disaster film Independence Day in which the US is devastated by a sudden alien invasion, and compared his data expert colleague Ben Warner to Jeff Goldblum’s scientist in the film whose warnings were ignored.

‘This is like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying, ‘The aliens are here and your whole plan is broken, and you need a new plan’.’

On March 12, Mr Cummings said he texted the Prime Minister at 7.48am saying: ‘We’ve got big problems coming.

‘The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly s***, no plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today, not next week, ‘If you feel ill with cold or flu stay at home’.’

He said he had a meeting with his advisers ‘when they kind of hit the total panic button with me and they said, ‘We’re looking at all this data, we’re looking at all of these graphs, we’re heading for a total catastrophe and we need to have Plan B’.’

Mr Cummings said that on the evening of March 13 it was realised that a meeting would need to be held with Mr Johnson to explain: ‘We’re going to have to ditch the whole official plan, we’re heading for the biggest disaster this country has seen since 1940.’

That is the year when British forces were evacuated from Dunkirk weeks before the fall of France – Britain’s darkest hour. He claimed the deputy cabinet secretary, Helen MacNamara, said on the same day: ‘I think we are absolutely f***ed, I think this country is heading for disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.’

Distracted by Trump and Dilyn the dog

Mr Cummings said that despite the panic, the Government remained obsessed with matters such as a military request from Donald Trump and Carrie Symonds’ anger over reports about her dog Dilyn.

On March 12 – less than two weeks before lockdown – ‘suddenly, the national security people came in and said, ‘Trump wants us to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East tonight’.’

‘So everything to do with Cobra that day on Covid was completely disrupted because you had these two parallel sets of meetings. And then to add to it, it sounds so surreal it couldn’t possibly be true, that day The Times had run a huge story about the Prime Minister and his girlfriend and their dog, and the Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that.

‘So, we have this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying, ‘Are we going to bomb Iraq?’, part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.’

Health Minister Matt Hancock with members of the media outside his home in north west London, May 26 

Problems with the test and trace system

The Government ‘left it too long’ to set up a functioning test and trace system, Mr Cummings said.

He told MPs that the system should have been set up in January but by April, when moves were being made, ‘the system was hugely distracted’ by Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s promise to increase testing to 100,000 a day across the country.

‘The problem is that between January and roughly mid-March, everyone was thinking, ‘Well, given we’re doing one single peak, herd immunity by September, there’s no point building up this whole thing’,’ he said.

Failures over personal protective equipment

Mr Cummings was highly critical of the Government’s failure to procure enough PPE for health and care home staff during the crisis.

He said that while Donald Trump was ordering the CIA to ‘gazump’ rival countries on orders for personal protective equipment, the Department of Health and Social Care was still trying to get orders from China by ship.

‘There were lots of great people in it but the procurement system which they were operating was just completely hopeless,’ he said.

‘There wasn’t any system set up to deal with proper emergency procurement.’

Mr Cummings said he was told vital masks and gloves were being sent by sea because it is ‘what we always do’. He said: ‘Hang on, we are going to have a peak in the NHS around about mid-April, and you are shipping things from China that are going to arrive in months’ time and all the aeroplanes are not flying?

‘Leave this meeting, commandeer the planes, fly them to China, drop them at the nearest airfield, pick up our stuff, fly it back. The whole system was just like wading through treacle.’

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