Cummings right about ‘false groupthink’, says Covid inquiry chair

Greg Clark, co-chair of Commons inquiry into pandemic, endorses some of former adviser’s comments about government failings

Dominic Cummings was at least partly correct in castigating the government for being too slow to respond to the initial threat of coronavirus, a co-chair of the Commons inquiry into the pandemic has said.

Over seven hours of often jaw-dropping testimony to the inquiry in May, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser said the prime minister was unfit to govern, obsessed with the media and changed direction “like a shopping trolley”.

Cummings also voiced what he said was his frustration at the lack of urgency when Covid emerged in early 2020, and his regret that too few people inside government, himself included, had challenged a drift towards a policy of effective herd immunity.

The subsequent report, published on Tuesday by the cross-party Commons science and health committees, largely ignored these personal attacks but quoted Cummings a number of times over a government tendency towards what the former adviser called “false groupthink”.

Asked if Cummings’ view on this had been endorsed by the report, Greg Clark, the Conservative MP who chairs the science and technology committee, agreed. “Yes, I think that’s right – and one of the regrets that he disclosed to the committee was that he had felt intimidated and stayed his hand in terms of challenging the early assumptions,” Clark told the Guardian.

The fact that even someone as powerful as Cummings, who quit the government in November last year, felt unable to break away from the assumed consensus meant there was a need to “institutionalise challenge more” and let in other perspectives, for example from different countries, Clark said.

In the report, Cummings was quoted as saying that while he had severe doubts about the policy direction in the early weeks of the pandemic, he was “incredibly frightened … about the consequences of me kind of pulling a massive emergency string and saying: ‘The official plan is wrong, and it is going to kill everyone, and you’ve got to change path,’ because, what if I’m wrong?”

The inquiry report did not delve into the bulk of Cummings’ more eye-catching testimony, such as his doubts about Johnson, or his contention that the then-health secretary, Matt Hancock “should’ve been fired for at least 15 to 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”.

At the time, Cummings promised to provide evidence about such claims. But this was never received by the inquiry team. Hancock gave his own evidence to the committee later, and on one issue the report sided with him rather than Cummings.

In the section on the troubled gestation of the Covid test-and-trace system, the report quoted Cummings as telling the inquiry Hancock’s early pledge to increase the number of daily tests to 100,000 a day was “an incredibly stupid thing to do”.

But the report’s authors disagreed, saying: “Given the painfully slow increase in the availability of testing before April 2020, we consider that the impact of the secretary of state’s target to have been an appropriate one to galvanise the rapid change the system needed.”

Hancock resigned in June after breaching social distancing rules with his lover.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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