'Am I being unreasonable?': Cummings messages throw light on No.10 Covid tensions

Former political adviser described Cabinet Office as “terrifyingly shit, no plans, totally behind pace"
Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy Stock Photo

A handful of exchanges published by the Covid Inquiry has shed more light on fractious relationships behind the scenes in No.10 in the early stages of the pandemic.

WhatsApp messages sent by former No.10 adviser Dominic Cummings to then-prime minister Boris Johnson in March 2020 describe the Cabinet Office as “terrifyingly shit, no plans, totally behind pace”.

In the same message on 12 March, Cummings described then-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill as “out to lunch – hasn’t a scooby what’s going on and his own officials know he doesn’t”.

He claimed that he was having to “drive and direct” efforts to tackle the pandemic, along with other advisers such as No.10’s then-head of communications Lee Cain and spokesperson James Slack.

“Some CABOFF want delay cos haven’t done the work and don’t work weekends. We must force the pace today. We are looking at 100-500 thousand deaths between optimistic/pessimistic scenarios. 1918 was 250k for comparison,” he told the PM, alluding to the Spanish flu epidemic.

Cummings also appeared to take aim at representatives from the devolved administrations, who were in close contact with the prime minister about the Covid response at the time.

In a second set of messages the same day, Cummings told Johnson he needed to chair daily meetings in the Cabinet Room "not COBRA".

"Not with the DAs on the f****** phone all the time either so people can't tell you the truth," he added.

Also published in the latest tranche of evidence was an email exchange between Cummings and senior official Tom Shinner, in which Cummings expressed frustration at statistics being provided to COBRA on the spread and impact of Covid.

He said the numbers being given in morning meetings were inconsistent and that statistics of people in critical care and “V”, or ventilation beds, were “often confused in meetings”.

“Number reporting seems a shitshow, different times every day. WTF use is a number from 9am that’s then updated retrospectively etc.,” he wrote.

“There should be a number calculated in a sensible way and done at same time every day and is intuitively sensible. That shouldn’t be too much to ask of NHS… am I being unreasonable?”

In his response, Shinner, the former head of no-deal Brexit planning who was drafted back into government to assist with the pandemic response, agreed that statistical reporting was a “mess”.

“You are not being unreasonable… it should be possible to fix all this,” he said.

He said the issue was partly down to “similar sounding things that are different”, such as statistics being inconsistently aggregated to be England-only or UK-wide.

But he also appeared to put some of the blame at the feet of then-health secretary Matt Hancock.

“Part of the problem is deliberate obfuscation by those in the room and by the boss letting MH et al get away with throwing him a random graph with subtly different measures none of us have seen,” he said.

Shinner said using figures only from the digital dashboard would help to address the problem. “No random updates thrown into the room – will need your help to police this; if boss keeps accepting charts presented on-spot without scrutiny, we can’t help him,” he said.

He then added: “We will pre-brief the PM for five minutes before coming into the room to tell him what we’re looking at, why it’s important and what he should ask.

“This is a must so he’s not just winging it.”

The inquiry continues.

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