‘Like a scene from Independence Day’: Dominic Cummings' timeline of the ‘crucial week’ in the government’s coronavirus response

Dominic Cummings has given a blow-by-blow account of the Downing Street operation in the “crucial week” of Covid-19 decision making pre-lockdown
Photo: Alamy

By Kate Proctor

27 May 2021

This timeline sets out the key moments, according to the PM's former senior adviser, where Boris Johnson's team reversed on herd immunity and the then-cabinet secretary advocated for chicken-pox style parties.

Monday 9 March: Herd immunity hits the headlines

Discussions ramp up over the virus’ escalation and whether the current scientific thinking and plans are the right ones. Cummings said the “official plan” from the Department for Health and Social Care was that the disease would spread, there won’t be vaccines available in 2020, so the approach was to delay the peak arriving.

Reaching herd immunity was an inevitability, he said, but not the active ambition. “That’s why in the week of the 9 March people from SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and elsewhere in the government started to talk publicly about herd immunity,” he said.

Cummings claimed that remained the plan until Friday 13 March.

Thursday March 12: The “insane day”

MORNING: At 7.48am Cummings says he sent a text message to the prime minister spelling out that the public must be warned immediately to change their behaviour and stay at home to stop the spread of the disease.

He claims his text said: “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 are looking at between 100-to-500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.”

Cummings said the focus of the day in No.10 was going to be about whether or not to announce household quarantine, but this was derailed by US President Donald Trump, who asked the UK to take part in a bombing raid in the Middle East.

“Suddenly the national security people came in and said Trump wants us to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East tonight,” Cummings explained. 

This meant Downing Street officials then spent the day in parallel meetings, on Covid-19 and the bombing. The then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill chimes in during a meeting in the PM’s office where they were discussing herd immunity to encourage Johnson to "go on TV tomorrow and explain to people the herd immunity plan and that it’s like the old chicken pox parties”. Cummings said Sedwill was only repeating the official advice given to him from the Department for Health and Social Care.

A Times news story about Dilyn, the pet dog of Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds,was also wreaking havoc in No.10, he said. The story about the dog being re-homed before their baby was due to be born, meant she was “going completely crackers” and “demanding the press office deal with that”, according to Cummings.

“We had this completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying 'are we going to bomb Iraq?' Part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not doing quarantine, the prime minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.”

AFTERNOON: Covid meeting leads to decision that household quarantine should be rolled out “pretty quickly”. The Attorney General Suella Braverman persuades Johnson not to go ahead with the bombing campaign.

EVENING: At 9pm Cummings sits down with data scientist, physicist and SAGE member Ben Warner and his brother Mark Warner, who worked for the NHS to build a Covid-related data dashboard. “They hit the total panic button with me. We’re looking at all this data. We’re heading for total catastrophe. We need to have [a] Plan B.”

Friday March 13: The day the Cheltenham Gold Cup goes ahead.

MORNING: Cummings and Ben Warner start going through the data available, with Warner then speaking to the government’s chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance, who Cummings said, was also extremely concerned. Graphs showed that even in a best case scenario with the official plan, the NHS would be hugely over-run.

EVENING: Warner, Cummings and the PM’s principal private secretary Martin Reynolds were sitting in the PM’s study. They decided they would need to sit Johnson down on Saturday to explain they’d have to ditch the official plan, and that the country was heading for the biggest disaster since 1940.

They set to work on a whiteboard sketching out with marker pen a Plan B, when deputy cabinet secretary Helen McNamara walks in. She explained she had just been talking to (director general, cabinet secretariat) Mark Sweeney, and he had said to her: “I’ve been told for years there was a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We’re in huge trouble.”

McNamara told the men: “I think we’re absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster.”

Saturday March 14: “A scene from Independence Day

MORNING: Official Cabinet meeting takes place, then Cummings meets the PM in his study with Ben Warner, Mark Warner and the PM’s private secretary. They present him a graph that showed scenarios of “no mitigation”, “no plan” and in Cummings' words, an “actual plan”.

He said he told the PM to lock down and get there as fast as possible but explained there wasn’t actually a process for the country to lock down. The Department for Health didn’t have a plan, Sage hadn’t modelled it, so Cummings alleges they’d have to “hack together” a plan and figure it out rapidly.

He said it was like a scene from the 1996 film Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying “the aliens are here, and your whole plan is broken and you need a new plan. With Ben Warner in the Jeff Goldblum role. He took the prime minister through all the graphs.”

He explains Warner showed the peak would be far sooner than previously modelled in June.

AFTERNOON: Cummings succeeds in getting the PM to change course, but said he was met with resistance that locking down would only see the virus bounce back and eventually the outcome could be worse.  

Sunday March 15: The Andrew Marr Show

Health secretary Matt Hancock goes on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show and says “herd immunity is not our policy. It’s not our goal”. On mass gatherings he said the government would do the right thing at the right time.

250,000 people went to Cheltenham Festival over the four days.

Monday March 16: PM advises the public to socially distance, but pubs, restaurants and mass sports events weren’t shut down for another week.

Seven days later.... Monday March 23: National lock down begins and the public is advised to stay at home.

Kate Proctor is the political editor of CSW's sister titles PoliticsHome and The House magazine, where a version of this story first appeared.

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