Former high aide says PM Johnson thought Covid first wave was ‘scare story’

London, May 26

Dominic Cummings, the former top aide of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on Wednesday said that the government had fallen “disastrously short” in its response to the Covid-19 pandemic’s first wave early last year as the premier believed it was just a “scare story” at that time.

In a series of explosive claims during his evidence before a joint House of Commons hearing of the Science and Technology and Health Committees, Johnson’s former Chief Strategy Adviser before an unceremonious exit last year declared that the officials in charge of the crisis were “out of their depth” and apologised to the families of those who died in the early days of the pandemic.

“At that stage, the prime minister believed it was a scare story, a new swine flu… I certainly told him it wasn’t,” Cummings told cross-party MPs during the evidence hearing, in reference to the period before the UK went into a complete “stay at home” lockdown to control the spread of the deadly virus on March 23, 2020.

“We have the prime minister chairing Cobra [Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms] meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it is swine flu, don’t worry about it. I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of’. That would not actually help serious planning,” he said.

Taking on some of the blame himself as one of the senior officials at Downing Street at the time, Cummings defended his stance as he did not feel equipped with all the facts and expertise to pull a so-called “emergency panic button” to push harder for a complete lockdown earlier.

“The truth is, senior ministers, officials, advisers like me fell disastrously short of standards required by the public,” he said.

“When the public needed us the most, the government failed. I want to apologise to all those families who had people that died… In retrospect, it’s completely obvious that many institutions failed,” he said.

He also made a withering attack on UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock and claimed that he should have been sacked for 15-20 things including “for lying” to people, an allegation for which he was asked by the parliamentary committee chairs to submit further written evidence.

During the questioning, Cummings was asked about the government’s preparations for a pandemic in general and whether it was the intention of ministers to allow the virus to spread until there was so-called herd immunity.

He told the MPs the original plan had been for limited intervention, with the hope of achieving herd immunity, but that was abandoned when it became clear the scale of the death toll that would result.

In reference to delayed lockdown, he claimed that by mid-March there was still “pushback in the system” against telling people to stay at home to reduce the spread of coronavirus due to economic concerns.

As one of the architects of the successful Brexit campaign that resulted in Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU) in the June 2016 referendum, Cummings went on to become one of Boris Johnson’s closest allies and followed him to Downing Street.

He is also credited with Johnson’s landslide general election win in December 2019. He left his position in November last year and was pictured leaving 10 Downing Street with a box in hand – indicative of an unceremonious exit after a much-publicised power struggle within the top ranks of the Prime Minister’s office.

In recent days, Cummings has used Twitter to direct a flurry of allegations at his former boss of overseeing a chaotic government whose failure to act quickly against the coronavirus caused thousands of unnecessary deaths. PTI

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