Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has been giving evidence to MPs about lessons from the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of his claims, checked against facts where possible and put into context where they are impossible to prove one way or the other.
Claim: Downing Street’s initial Covid plan involved herd immunity
Cummings said “the whole logic of all the discussions in January and February and early March” inside No 10 was the assumption that containment would not work, and there was a choice between either a peak of infections in the spring, or suppression followed by a worse peak in the winter, and that the only containment should be shielding clinically vulnerable people during the wave, and trying to flatten the peak.
At the end of the wave of infections, enough people would have antibodies to create effective herd immunity, so the plan went, Cummings said. This was seen as an “inevitability” rather than a desired outcome, he said.
A lot of the differences between Cummings and No 10 over herd immunity come down to the definition of what the plan was. Downing Street rejects that a mass wave of infections followed by antibody-based herd immunity was seen as a desired outcome. But Cummings argued it was just viewed as the better of two very bad options – either a peak in spring, or a worse one in winter.
There is plenty of evidence that senior officials did believe this. For example, on 13 March 2020 Sir Patrick Vallance, England’s chief scientific adviser, told the BBC the government wanted to avoid everybody “getting it in a short period of time so we swamp and overwhelm NHS services”.
Vallance added: “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.”
Claim: World Health Organization and Public Health England failed to fully raise the alarm in January
“When it started in January I did think … oh my God, is this it? However at the time the PHE here and the WHO, and the CDC (the US Centers for Disease Control), generally speaking organisations across the western world, were not kind of ringing alarm bells about it then.” He contrasted this with, for example, Taiwan and other places in east Asia.
Taiwan and other places have managed the pandemic much better than the UK, and acted much earlier.
It was not until 22 January that the WHO’s mission to China said that data “suggests human to human transmission is taking place in Wuhan”. Eight days later, WHO advised countries to be “prepared for containment, including active surveillance”. On 30 January the WHO director general declared that the outbreak constituted a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).
Verdict: Largely true
Claim: There was not an emergency fast-track process to deal with procurement
On the day Johnson tested positive – 27 March 2020 – Cummings says he and others were told “at the cabinet table” that ventilators were being turned down because the price had been marked up.
A National Audit Office (NAO) report into “value for money” states that on 18 March 2020, the Cabinet Office issued guidance stating public bodies were permitted to procure goods, services and works “with extreme urgency” under 2015 regulations.
But another NAO report into procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) found that government’s structures were overwhelmed in March 2020.
“Once government recognised the gravity of the situation it created a parallel supply chain to buy and distribute PPE,” the NAO found, “but it took a long time for it to receive the large volumes of PPE ordered, particularly from the new suppliers, which created significant risks.”
Verdict: True to a large extent
Claim: He ‘cut off’ contacts with journalists and ‘spoke to the media close to zero’ in 2020
“I was working roughly 100-hour weeks. At that time, less than an hour a week, less than 1%, much less than 1% was spent talking to the media,” said Cummings.
However, he then appeared to catch up on himself, adding that he “did occasionally talk to people” but “the main person during the whole of 2020” he spoke to was the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.
Few would take issue with Cummings’ point that the BBC has “a special place in the country, especially during a crisis”.
But eyebrows will be raised across Whitehall, Fleet Street and beyond at his claims that a man who was regarded as a prodigious leaker during his time in government suddenly went cold turkey on long-term contacts.
Verdict: Hard to prove, but smells fishy
Claim: He accepted the MPs’ invitation ‘to set out the truth of what happened, not to settle scores’
Cummings opened with an apology for his own failings to the families of all of those who died during the pandemic. Appearing to share the blame with others, he added: “The truth is that senior ministers, advisers like me, fell disastrously short. When the public needed us most we failed.”
Cummings had already been teeing up his appearance with damaging tweets. After his initial mea culpa – voice almost cracking – what followed during his time in front of MPs on Wednesday was a lacerating attack on the prime minister, senior civil servants and, in particular, the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
In characteristic fashion, workers in the NHS and wider civil service were described as “lions led by donkeys” while particularly personal barbs were aimed at Johnson, with Cummings making the point twice in 20 minutes that the prime minister had gone on holiday as the pandemic was taking off in February.
Verdict: Doesn’t hold water
Claim: An opportunity to massively ramp up testing was missed
Cummings claimed it should have been possible to have testing of about 5m a day available by the first week of September.
A data dashboard on the government website indicates a figure of about 250,000 tests a day had been reached reached by September. This was also at a time when a failure to involve Britain’s small laboratories in the test-and-trace programme was widely reported on and regarded as a failure.
Figures such as Maggie Rae, the president of the Faculty of Public Health, told the British Medical Journal that other countries were managing a much more effective system on testing.
Verdict: It’s reasonable to say that capacity could have been increased
Claim: Talk of putting a shield around care homes was ‘complete nonsense’
Cummings said: “We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to [care] homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened. Now while the government rhetoric was we have put a shield around care homes and blah blah blah, it was complete nonsense.”
He went on to say the opposite occurred and people with Covid were sent back to the care homes.
Care homes and representatives of the sector have said the government “completely abandoned” them, while criticism of the handling of the care home issue has been voiced by the former health secretaries Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt.
Though authorities in Britain are not alone in comparison with counterparts in other western states, in terms of failing to follow through on talk of shielding care homes, a study from the London School of Economics has put the number of Covid-19 deaths among care home residents in England and Wales at 22,000, more than double the official estimate.
Claim: There was a suggestion the chief medical officer should inject Johnson with Covid-19 virus on live TV
Cummings made the claim in the context of how he said Johnson viewed the virus, regarding it as a “scare story” akin to swine flu, a global influenza outbreak in 2009 and 2010.
Downing Street has declined to deny the claim. The prime minister’s spokesperson said: “I don’t plan to get into various allegations and claims that have been made today.”
Verdict: Hard to prove either way
Claim: A preoccupation with a story about the prime ministerial dog distracted the government
On 12 March last year, Cummings claims, he tried to warn Johnson of “big problems coming”, but the government was preoccupied with other issues including a story about the prime ministerial dog, Dilyn. “The prime minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that,” he said.
A story claiming that the Jack Russell cross adopted by Johnson and Carrie Symonds could be quietly rehomed before the couple had their first child appeared in the Times on 11 March.
Unless Cummings is suggesting the government continued to worry about the story a day after it first appeared, when it was covered by other outlets, then the anecdote doesn’t quite work.
Verdict: Date doesn’t quite match
Claim: Johnson said he would rather see ‘bodies pile high’
Cummings told MPs he heard the remark being made in the prime minister’s study immediately after he had taken the decision to impose a new lockdown at the end of October. The prime minister has strongly denied saying the phrase, describing the reports as “total rubbish”.
The claim has been reported by other sources including the BBC, with the claim attributed to multiple sources.
The Daily Mail also reported an unnamed source as claiming the prime minister said at a Downing Street meeting in October: “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”
Verdict: Not proven. But also not disproven