It normally takes decades for the full behind-the-scenes story of how a government messed up its response to a once-in-a-generation crisis to be shared with the public. This time, thanks to Boris Johnson’s former top adviser, all it took was a few short but devastating hours.
Dominic Cummings was forced out of his job as the U.K. prime minister’s chief adviser late last year after a bitter factional dispute. On Wednesday morning, when he was invited to give evidence in Parliament about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, he took full advantage of the opportunity to torch his incredibly long list of enemies.
The picture painted by Cummings was one of terrifying complacency at the heart of government as the coronavirus started to sweep Britain. According to the adviser, Johnson was so relaxed about the pandemic that he offered to be injected with the coronavirus on live television to show the public that it was “nothing to be scared of.” Weeks later, after being talked down from that absurd idea, Johnson was almost killed by the virus.
“The truth is that senior ministers, officials, advisers like me, fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this,” Cummings said to open his evidence session. “When the public needed us most, we failed. And I’d like to say to all the families of those who have died unnecessarily, how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made, and my own mistakes.”
Cummings, who was perhaps anticipating being dismissed as a bitter ex-employee, brought along receipts. He showed lawmakers his text messages to the prime minister from last March which showed him describing the plan to fight the imminent pandemic as “terrifyingly shit.” The message read: “No plans, totally behind pace... We must announce today that if you feel ill stay home. We’re looking at 100,000 to 500,000 deaths.”
Cummings also shared a photograph of a whiteboard covered in scrawls which he claims set out the government’s plan from last March. At the bottom, it features the chilling question: “Who do we not save?”
The ex-adviser recalled one top government figure, who he named as deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara, bursting into the prime minister’s office in mid-March last year to say: “I’ve come through here to tell you all, ‘I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for disaster. I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.’”
Based on Cummings’ account, that fear was justified. He said the government—him included—had failed to absorb the warnings from China in January that the virus could easily spiral out of control. He described the situation in Downing Street as “like a kind of out-of-control movie,” where he even witnessed top members of government advocating “chickenpox parties,” where people would purposefully catch the virus.
When telling his tales, the ex-adviser compared the government’s response to the meme where two Spidermen are pointing at each other, saying everyone was blaming everyone else for government inaction. He also said the situation was “like a scene from Independence Day, with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken.”
Cummings was repeatedly brutal when giving evidence about Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who he accused of lying to the public and committing fireable offenses over a dozen times during the course of the pandemic. “Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die,” said Cummings.
He claimed that Johnson was purposefully kept away from some crisis meetings about the pandemic in February and March because people were concerned he would trivialize the imminent disaster.
When it reached March 12 last year, Cummings claims he was begging the prime minister to announce strict pandemic measures. However, according to Cummings, Johnson was too distracted by meetings that day about whether to join Donald Trump’s airstrikes in the Middle East, and his partner, Carrie Symonds, was going “completely crackers” about what she felt was an unfair newspaper story about their dog, Dilyn.
Ultimately, Johnson told the public to avoid all non-essential contact and travel four days later, and then imposed a full national lockdown on March 23—11 days after Cummings says he raised his concerns.
Later in the evidence session, Cummings corroborated reports from last month that claimed, as Johnson imposed a second national lockdown on England in the fall, he said that he would rather see “bodies pile high” than take the country into a future third lockdown. “I heard that in the prime minister’s study,” said Cummings, making him the first on-the-record source to confirm the reports. Last month, Johnson said claims about his alleged outburst were “total rubbish.”
Cummings went on to say his relationship with Johnson suffered as the pandemic went on and he saw more mistakes being made, which he said contributed to his decision to leave his job in November. “Fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job,” said Johnson’s former aide.
However, the former aide said he ultimately decided to leave after seeing Symonds, Johnson’s partner, attempt to land her friends prestigious jobs in Downing Street—an act which he alleged was both “unethical” and “clearly illegal.”
The prime minister defended his handling of the pandemic on Wednesday, saying that the government’s response has been “one of the most difficult things this country has had to do for a very long time.” Johnson added, “I don’t think anybody could credibly accuse this government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point.”
However, he dodged the opportunity to deny Cummings’ claim that he had dismissed the coronavirus as “another scare story” in 2020, and delayed a second lockdown because the virus was “only killing 80-year-olds.”
As of Wednesday, Britain has recorded 128,001 deaths from the virus—the fifth-worst death toll suffered by any country in the world.