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WORLD | 26-05-2021 11:22

UK government failed public 'disastrously' with its Covid response, says ex-PM aide

The British government "disastrously" failed the public by mishandling the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former top adviser told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The British government "disastrously" failed the public by mishandling the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former top adviser and Brexit architect Dominic Cummings told lawmakers on Wednesday.

In an excoriating account of the crisis's early days, Cummings – a divisive figure who carved out a uniquely powerful role in Johnson's government before stepping down in December – said senior ministers and officials "completely failed" to adequately plan.

Covid-19 has claimed nearly 128,000 lives in Britain – the fifth-highest official death toll in the world – while the virus is noted on more than 152,000 UK death certificates, in a sign of its true impact.

Cummings accused Johnson of branding coronavirus "a scare story" and of being too reluctant to impose a lockdown because of the economic impact. He also hit out at Johnson's leadership, assessing the crisis as a case of "lions led by donkeys over and over again." 

The 49-year-old repeatedly singled out Health Secretary Matt Hancock for extraordinary criticism, alleging he lied to colleagues on numerous occasions and could have been fired for "at least 15 or 20 things."

"The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis," Cummings told a parliamentary committee.

"When the public needed us most the government failed," he said, adding an apology "to all the families of those who died unnecessarily".

Speaking during Prime Minister's questions, Johnson told Parliament he took "full responsibility" but insisted decision-making during the pandemic had been "appallingly difficult." 

"I maintain my point that the government acted throughout with the intention to save life... in accordance with the best scientific advice."

Group-think

The testimony of Cummings, the strategist behind the "Leave" campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, was much anticipated after he began attacking Johnson's coronavirus policies and financial dealings in recent weeks.

During hours of questions from Parliament's Health and Science Scrutiny committees, he conceded "many, many institutions failed around the world" in their initial handling of the pandemic.

But he blasted senior UK officials for failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation. 

"Lots of people were literally skiing in the middle of February," Cummings said bluntly.

He accused officials of "catastrophic" group-think, pursuing a haphazard strategy of so-called herd immunity before belatedly abandoning it when the likely death toll became clear.

Cummings said Britain's top civil servant suggested to Johnson in mid-March that he could encourage gatherings to spread infections and build immunity.

Comparing officials' eventual realisation of the situation to a scene in the movie Independence Day after an alien invasion, Cummings said the deputy cabinet secretary conceded to him that "there is no plan, we're in huge trouble."

"The prime minister's view throughout January, February, March was... the real danger here is not the disease, the real danger here is the measures we take to deal with the disease and the economic destruction that that will cause," he added.

“There is no doubt the prime minister made some very bad misjudgments and got some very serious things wrong,” Cummings told the hearing. “It’s also the case that he was extremely badly let down by the system failure – and I include myself in that.”

Eyesight test

Cummings was appointed chief adviser by Johnson when he took power in July 2019, helping him to secure a thumping election victory that December.

But his frequent clashes with colleagues are said to have led to persistent tensions and he left government a year later.

The 49-year-old was criticised for undermining the government's lockdown message early in the pandemic when he went on a lengthy cross-country journey with his family.

Critics labelled his defence that a lockdown-breaching drive was to test his eyesight as farcical, and Johnson expended considerable political capital backing him at the time.

The former aide, however, gave a new explanation for his notorious decision to drive his family more than 250 miles north of London while the rest of the country was told to stay home in the first national lockdown.

He said his family had been threatened by a gang outside his home and police advised him to move them out. Cummings said it was a “terrible mistake” not to “come clean” about the real reason for his trip at the time.

In a damning aside, Cummings said Wednesday clear that he does not believe Johnson should be prime minister. He said it was “crazy” that he should have been appointed to such a senior role advising the premier, “just as it’s crackers that Boris was there and [ex-Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn was up at the election.”

He said he briefed the BBC during the pandemic to correct the record and knock down untrue media reports. But he didn’t tell Johnson about all his contacts with journalists because “the prime minister is already about 1,000 times too obsessed with the media” to be able to focus properly on his job.

Attention

Despite the PM riding high after successful local election results in England this month, Cummings' testimony will refocus attention on his government's patchy performance responding to the pandemic. Johnson's government has also overseen a successful vaccination drive, however, having offered more than two-thirds of adults at least one dose.

Last month Cummings published a blog saying Johnson had fallen far below “the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.”

Speaking prior to the hearing, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps dismissed Cummings’s appearance as a “side show,” insisting that voters care more about getting vaccinated and leaving lockdown behind.

“I’ll leave others to determine how reliable a witness to all this he is,” Shapps told Sky News Wednesday. “He was there at the time, what his motives would be I will leave to others.”

Most people are interested in getting their vaccine rather than the “sideshow over a former adviser who has his own agenda, presumably,” Shapps added.

Despite a surge in cases of the so-called India variant, Johnson is now looking ahead to the full reopening of the economy on June 21, which remains on course after data showed vaccines remain effective against the strain.

– TIMES/BLOOMBERG/AFP

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