The first coronavirus lockdown was delayed because there was “no proper plan” in place and because the economic damage of “overreacting” to the pandemic was considered a bigger risk than the virus itself, the prime minister’s former top adviser has said.
Giving evidence to MPs this morning, Dominic Cummings said “the system” repeatedly put off the introduction of measures to curb the spread of coronavirus early last year “because there was not a proper plan in place”.
Cummings said he had asked health secretary Matt Hancock whether the UK was prepared for “something terrible like ebola or a flu pandemic” on 25 January last year. Hancock said plans for a pandemic were in place that were “regularly prepped and refreshed”, and that Covid-19 was on Whitehall’s “top-tier risk register”, he claimed.
He said this later turned out not to be the case and that he rejected not pushing harder for answers.
The government also failed to take warnings about the pandemic seriously, the former special adviser claimed, which meant that “when the public needed us most, the government failed.”
“There were quite a few people around Whitehall who thought that the real danger was to the economy,” he told MPs.
“The prime minister’s view throughout January, February, March was – as he said in many meetings – the real danger here is not disease, the real danger is the measures that we take to deal with the disease and the economic destruction that that will cause.”
The ex-spad said that even after the World Health Organisation had declared a global health emergency in January, the UK government and No.10 were “not operating on a war footing in February in any shape or form” and that there was no “sense of urgency” until the last week of that month.
Cummings said he had urged the prime minister to issue public health advice telling people to isolate if they became ill, weeks before the government did so.
He said in a text to Boris Johnson on 12 March 2020, he had written: “We’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly shit: no plans, totally behind the pace. We must announce today, not next week, if you feel ill with cold or flu, stay home.
“Some around the system want to delay because they haven’t done the work. We must force the pace. We’re looking at 100-500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. You’ve got to chair the daily meetings in the cabinet room, not Cobra.”
He said a day later, Helen McNamara, then-deputy cabinet secretary, came into No.10 and said: “We’re absolutely fucked. I think the country is headed for an absolute disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.”
According to Cummings, McNamara said she had been told by Mark Sweeney, director general of the cabinet secretariat in the Cabinet Office, that he had been told “for years there is a whole plan for this” but that he had realised “there is no plan, we’re in huge trouble”.
He said ministers and officials spent too long operating on the assumption that the British public would refuse to accept a lockdown or a test and trace system. He said behavioural scientists wrongly advised the that this was the case.
He later compared the situation in No.10 when people were trying to decide how to respond to the pandemic to “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’.”
He said around the same time, people in No.10 were distracted by two events: an attempt by then-US president Donald Trump to convince the UK to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East, and the reaction of the PM’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, to a story in the press about her dog.
Cummings said he regretted not pushing harder for a lockdown earlier, and that he had not done so because he was “incredibly frightened” that it might be the wrong call and might cause huge damage to the economy.
“I bitterly regret that I didn’t kind of hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did. I think, in retrospect, there’s no doubt that I was wrong not to,” he said.
He was also pressed on whether he had pushed for pubs and restaurants – which both remained open when social-distancing measures were put in place in March – to close.
He said “yes and no”, pointing out that there was no plan for what a lockdown would look like. He said officials found themselves in a situation where “[the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] haven’t modelled it, [DHSC] don’t have a plan, we are going to have to figure out and hack together a lockdown plan”.
Other questions that arose during the evidence session included why the PM did not chair Cobra meetings in the early stage of the pandemic – something for which he was heavily criticised at the time.
Cummings said some officials believed it was for the best that the prime minister was not chairing Cobra meetings at the time.
He said there was an attitude that “if we have the prime minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it’s [like] 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.”
Herd immunity ‘seen as inevitable’
Cummings also claimed that herd immunity was a key part of the government’s initial strategy to tackle the pandemic – contradicting the government’s repeated insistence that it was not.
He said while no one wanted the virus to spread, leading to herd immunity in the UK population, it was seen as “inevitable” and simply a question of timing.
He said ministers and officials believed there were “only two options”: that infections would peak in the first half of 2020, leading to herd immunity by September, or that infections would be suppressed early on before spiking over winter, leading to herd immunity by January this year.
“I’m baffled why No.10 has tried to deny that... that was the official plan,” he said.
Responding to Cummings’s comments at prime minister’s question time this morning, Johnson said: “None of the decisions have been easy, to go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing for a county. We have at every stage tried to minimise loss of life.”
CSW has approached the Cabinet Office for further comment.