The maverick former No10 chief adviser is delivering four hours of testimony to a joint session of the Commons health and science committees in which he is handing a bruising to his former friend and boss.
Mr Cummings is expected to be accused by Tory MPs of using today’s appearance to ‘avenge’ his sacking in November after he lost a power struggle with Ms Symonds.
But Labour will seize on the claims as evidence that Mr Johnson could have done more to save lives.
Below is Mr Cummings’ evidence in full:
Dominic Cummings is delivering four hours of testimony to a joint session of the Commons health and science committees about Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid
Q – Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
On January 22, Wuhan, a city the size of London, was sealed off. Did this set alarm bells ringing?
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 like this. When the public needed us most the Government failed. I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that.
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 like this.
When it started, in January, I did think in part of my mind, ‘Oh my goodness, is this it? Is this what people have been warning about all this time?’ However, at the time the PHE (Public Health England) here and the WHO (World Health Organisation) and CDC, generally speaking, organisations across the western world were not ringing great alarm bells about it then.
I think it is in retrospect completely obvious that many, many institutions failed on this early question. The Taiwanese his the panic button some time around New Year’s Eve and immediately closed the borders and introduced a strict quarantine system. I think it’s obvious that the Western world including Britain completely failed to see the smoke and hear the alarm bells.
Q – Do you remember a time when you personally were seized of the important of it?
On something like January 25 I said to the private office at Number 10 that we should look at pandemic planning and soon after I asked Matt Hancock where we were with scanning the pandemic operation plans.
I would like to stress and apologise for the fact that it is true that I did this but I did not follow up on this and push it the way I should’ve done.
We were told in No 10 at the time that this is literally top of the risk register, this has been planned and there’s been exercises on this over and over again, everyone knows what to do.
And it’s sort of tragic in a way, that someone who wrote so often about running red teams and not trusting things and not digging into things, whilst I was running red teams about lots of other things in government at this time, I didn’t do it on this.
Dom’s doomsday dossier
Dominic Cummings set up his appearance before MPs today with a series of revelations – all of them contested by No10 – about the handling of the pandemic in recent days. Among them are:
- Boris Johnson said ‘Covid is only killing 80-year-olds’ when he delayed a national lockdown last autumn.
- The Government’s ‘Plan A’ in the early months of the pandemic was to pursue a strategy of ‘herd immunity’.
- The initial response to the crisis was ‘total and utter chaos’ and the original plan was only ditched after Number 10 was warned it would lead to a ‘catastrophe’.
- Matt Hancock was talking ‘bullsh*t’ when he denied herd immunity was an official policy.
- Mr Johnson said ‘I’m going to be the mayor of Jaws’ in reference to the local politician in the film who ordered beaches to be kept open despite a deadly shark attack.
- The PM had no plan for a Covid lockdown last year before experts started ‘screaming’ that hundreds of thousands of people could die.
- All three country-wide lockdowns could have been entirely avoided if there were ‘competent people in charge’ and ministers had ‘the right preparations’.
If I had said at the end of January, we’re going to take a Saturday and I want all of these documents put on the table and I want it all gone through and I want outside experts to look at it all, then we’d have figured out much, much earlier that all the claims about brilliant preparations and how everything was in order were basically completely hollow, but we didn’t figure this out until the back end of February.
Q – When did you talk to the PM about it first?
It was definitely raised with the PM in the first half of January in a chat with me and other people.
Q – In the months that followed was Covid the most important matter that you dealt with?
At the time the government, in no way shape of form, acted like it was the most important thing going on in January, nor in February. The Government itself and Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February on this in any way, shape or form. Lot of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.
Obviously in retrospect I should have been hitting the panic button more than I did in February, I did more as the month went on.
Q – Give a brief summary of the principle things you were dealing with during February.
I was working very much on the science and technology agenda and procurement reform. I was dealing with other things like HS2, national security issues and the reshuffle.
Q – Did you have to book meetings with the PM?
I could just pop in and out of his office. I sometimes wrote notes but most of our interaction was talking. I wrote a note to him about the Covid situation in February, I’m not sure if I did in January.
Q – Did you attend Cobra meetings in February?
I don’t think that I did. What I did was hire a guy to run data for No10. [Additional Q – Did you choose not to go?] It was a question of dividing people’s time. I don’t remember if I attended any of the Cobra meetings.
[Additional Q – Did you advise the Prime Minister to go?] No. [Additional Q – Why didn’t you?] The best use of people’s time was to send Ben Warner, a physicist I hired, and a Downing Street adviser. A lot of Cobra meetings are just PowerPoint slides and aren’t very useful.
Also bear in mind one of the huge problems we had throughout was things leaking and creating chaos in the media. Things were leaking from Cobra, leaking from practically everything.
The view of various officials inside Number 10 was if we have the Prime Minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it’s 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’
On why the PM didn’t attend Cobra meetings on Covid in February
‘So when I wanted to have sensitive conversations that I didn’t want to see appear in the media I did not have those conversations in Cobra.’
I was having meetings about it with people like Patrick Vallance [chief scientific adviser] in a way I knew wouldn’t leak. In February the Prime Minister regarded this as just a scare story, he described it as the new swine flu.
The view of various officials inside Number 10 was if we have the Prime Minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it’s 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 help actually serious panic.
I’m not a technical person, I’m not a smart person. I couldn’t understand a lot of the things that were being discussed and the modelling that was being done so I thought it was more useful to have a PhD physicist there [at the Cobra meetings]. A lot of it was over my head.
Q – Why did you change your 2019 blog to refer to coronaviruses?
There have been a lot of media stories saying that I changed what I wrote but that’s all false. Not a single letter of what I wrote was changed. Not a single word was changed. [Additional Q – But you added to it?] Correct. [Additional Q – How did you have time to do that?] Pasting over a blog takes 90 seconds or so.
Q – Could you explain the thinking on the issue of herd immunity?
Herd immunity was seen as completely inevitability… and the only option.
Essentially the logic of the official plan from the Department of Health was that this disease is going to spread, vaccines are not going to be relevant in any way, shape or form over the relevant time period, we were told it was essentially a certainty that there would be no vaccines available in 2020, something else which turned out to be completely wrong because, as I think we’ll come onto, it actually turns out we could’ve done vaccines much faster than happened.
PM ‘focused on Trump’s bombing plan and dog story as top civil servant admitted the UK was absolutely f*****’
Dominic Cummings laid out a detailed timetable of the disastrous response to the coronavirus threat last March.
The former aide said he warned the PM on March 12 that there were ‘big problems coming’ if self-isolation measures were not announced immediately.
He said he told Boris Johnson: ‘We’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly sh**. No plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today, not next week. We must force the pace. We’re looking at 100,000 to 500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.’
But he said on that day rather than focusing on Covid the Government was consumed with a potential bombing campaign in the Middle East at the request of Mr Trump and a ‘trivial’ story in the Times newspaper about Mr Johnson, his fiancee Carrie Symonds and their dog.
He said: ‘And then to add to … it sounds so surreal couldn’t possibly be true … that day, the Times had run a huge story about the Prime Minister and his girlfriend and their dog.
‘The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that.
‘So we had this sort of 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 do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.’
Mr Cummings said on the evening of March 13 the second most senior civil servant at the Cabinet Office, Helen MacNamara, came in and relayed to him the view of another senior official that ‘there is no plan’ and ‘we’re in huge trouble’.
Mr Cummings said she told him: ‘I think we are absolutely f*****’ and warned that ‘thousands’ of people could die.
However, at around the same time there were still meetings going on with officials suggesting people should be advised to have ‘chicken pox parties’ to spread the virus more quickly.
Even in the first half of March Mr Johnson was still of the view that the threat to the economy was more significant than the public health risk.
Mr Cummings said it was like something out of disaster movie Independence Day, where star Jeff Goldblum says the plan had failed and there needs to be a new one.
But at the time the whole plan was based on the assumption that it was a certainty that there would be no vaccines in 2020. So the logic was you can either have … if it’s unconstrained it will come in and there will be a sharp peak like that, and it will completely swamp everything and huge disaster.
The logical approach therefore is to introduce measures which delay that peak arriving and which push it down below the capacity of the health system.
In response to the argument. ‘But hang on a second, look at what they’re doing in Wuhan, Taiwan and South Korea’, the assumption in Whitehall was that it wouldn’t work for them… secondly, that it was inconceivable that the British public would accept Wuhan-style measures.
Even if we therefore suppress it completely all you’re going to do is get a second peak in the winter when the NHS is already every year under pressure, so we only actually have a real choice between one peak and herd immunity by September – terrible but then you’re through it by the time the next winter comes – if you try and flatten it now the second peak comes up in winter time that’s even worse.
So, horrific as it looks in the summer, the numbers will be even worse if this happens in October, November, December-time.
It’s important to bear in mind on this whole herd immunity point, obviously no one is saying that they want this to happen, the point is it was seen as an inevitability – you will either have herd immunity by September after a single peak or you will have herd immunity by January with a second peak, those are the only two options that we have.
That was the whole logic of all of the discussions in January and in February and early March. [Additional Q – So when Matt Hancock said on March 15 that herd immunity was not a policy, was that wrong?] Completely wrong. That was the plan. I’m completely baffled as to why No 10 has tried to deny that because that was the official plan.
Q – Jeremy Hunt, former Conservative health secretary
On the Sage meeting on March 5 it was five weeks since the WHO had said Covid was an issue of international concern. But the minutes say that the only measures recommended were shielding the vulnerable and elderly. Did you advise him that Sage were wrong?
No I didn’t. In the first ten days of March I was increasingly being told by people things were going wrong, but I was also really worried about smashing my hand down on a button saying ‘ditch the official plan’. By the 5th I was still reluctant to do that.
I was really torn about the whole thing because in the first 10 days of March. I was increasingly being told by people I think this is going wrong but I was also really, really worried about kind of like smashing my hand down on a massive button marked ‘ditch the official plan, stop listening to the official plan, I think there’s something going wrong’. I did do that as we’ll come on to but on the fifth I was reluctant to do that.
[Additional Q – Did you advise that Cheltenham be cancelled?] No, the official advice was that it wouldn’t make much difference to transmission, which was bizarre in retrospect, and that cancelling it could be actively bad as it would just push people into pubs. No one in the official system, in the Department of Health, drew the obvious logical conclusion, which was ‘shouldn’t we be shutting all the pubs as well?’
There was push back from within the system against advising on the 12th to say stay at home if you’ve got symptoms.
The official line was that it wouldn’t make much difference to transmission.
On the decision to hold Cheltenham
And me and others were realising at this point the system is basically delaying announcing all of these things because there’s not a proper plan in place.
As far as I could tell from Sage, and as far as the minutes show, the fundamental assumption remained we can’t do lockdown, we can’t do suppression, because it just means a second peak.
Prior to giving evidence, Cummings posted a chart on Twitter claiming that COBR documents had the ‘optimal single peak strategy’ showing 260,000 dead because the system was ‘so confused in the chaos’
You had this surreal situation where part of the building was going on about Covid, the other about bombing the Middle East and the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.
Cummings on the state of Number 10 on March 12
Q – Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary
How would you change the structures and systems to stop this happened in a future pandemic?
The way in which Sage and the whole thinking around the strategy was secret was a huge mistake because there wasn’t proper scrutiny.
Anyone who has been involved in the political world knows the whole thing is riddled with duff studies to make people believe things that weren’t true. And that was one of the problems behind the group-think, which was that the British public would not accept a lockdown or an Asian-style track and trace system. Those assumptions were central to the official plan and obviously completely wrong.
[Additional Q – did you advise going further with the lockdown?] We need to understand the crucial period between Thursday 12th and the Sunday, when things started to change.
I have been told for years that there is a plan for this, there is no plan, we are in huge trouble.
What a senior official allegedly told Cummings on March 13
On the 12th – it was a completely surreal day… I sent a message to the PM at 7.48 that morning and, forgive the language this is expressed in, ‘We’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly s***. No plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today, not next week. We must force the pace. We’re looking at 100,000 to 500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.’
So the day started with that but we then got completely derailed when in the morning of the 12th the people of the National Security Committee came in and said Trump wanted us to join in a Middle East bombing campaign.
And then to add to … it sounds so surreal couldn’t possibly be true … that day, the Times had run a huge story about the Prime Minister and his girlfriend and their dog. The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that.
I think we’re absolutely f****d and are going to kill thousands of people.
Reported comments of a senior civil servant
So we had this sort of 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 do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.
Fortunately thank God the Attorney General persuaded the PM not to join in with the Middle East bombing campaign.
The evening of Friday 13th, I’m sitting with Ben Warner [data scientist] and the PM’s private secretary in the PM’s private study and we discussed about how we would have to speak to him tomorrow about needing to ditch the official plan. This is the white board [pictured below] which has plan B sketched on it.
The scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken and you need a new plan.
At this point, deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara said she had been talking to the official Mark Sweeney, who was in charge with coordinating with the Department of Health and he said, ‘I have been told for years that there is a plan for this, there is no plan, we are in huge trouble’.
Helen McNamara said ‘I think we are absolutely f****d’ I think this country’s in a disaster and we are going to kill thousands of people. I said ‘I think you’re right, it is a disaster, we are going to sketch out plan b’.
On March 14, the Prime Minister was told ‘You are going to have to lock down’. But there is no lockdown plan. Sage haven’t modelled it, DH don’t have a plan, we are going to have to figure out and hack together a lockdown plan. This is like 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’… that is what the scene was like that morning, with Ben Warner in the Jeff Goldblum role.
He took the Prime Minister through all the graphs, and through the NHS graphs, and showed him that the system is thinking this is all weeks and weeks and away… but this is all completely wrong… The NHS is going to be smashed in weeks.
Mr Cummings teed up his evidence by tweeting this chart of the government’s Plan B this morning
Q – You didn’t advise the PM to change tack until March 11, you didn’t advise him to cancel Cheltenham, the Champions League, to close the borders. Do you not recognise that was a massive failing on your part?
There’s no doubt in retrospect that yes, it was a huge failure of mine and I bitterly regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did. In retrospect there’s no doubt I was wrong not to. All I can say is my worry was, my mental state at the time was, on the one hand you can know from the last week of February that a whole many things were wrong.
But I was incredibly frightened, I guess is the word, about the consequences of me kind of pulling a massive emergency string and saying the official plan is wrong and it’s going to kill everyone and you have got to change path because what if I’m wrong? What if I persuade him to change tack and that’s a disaster?’
The Prime Minister said all the way through February that the issue was not this new swine flu thing, the danger was that people could overreact to it and cripple the economy.
Mr Cummings giving evidence today
We are sitting in the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet were talking about the herd immunity plan. The Cabinet Secretary said ‘Prime Minister you should go on TV tomorrow and explain to people the herd immunity plan and that it’s like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September’.
I said ‘Mark (Sedwill), you have got to stop using this chicken pox analogy, it’s not right’ and he said ‘why’ and Ben Warner said ‘because chicken pox is not spreading exponentially and killing hundreds of thousands of people’.
To stress, this wasn’t some thing that Cabinet Secretary had come up with, he was saying what the official advice to him from the Department of Health was.
Q – Mark Logan, Tory MP for Bolton North East
You are seen as very successful, but why were you not able to nail an earlier lockdown?
I didn’t pay enough attention to it early enough, for sure. It was the classic group think bubble. But what is inarguable the case was that part of my job was to challenge things and I didn’t do that early enough. If this process had been opened up to outside smart people we would have figured out at least six weeks earlier that there was an alternative plan.
At this time, not just the Prime Minister but many other people thought that the real danger is not the health danger but the over-reaction to it and the economy. The Prime Minister said all the way through February and through the first half of March the real danger here isn’t this new swine flu thing, it’s that the reaction to it is going to cripple the economy.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, although I think he was completely wrong, lots of other senior people in Whitehall had the same view, that the real danger was the economic one.
Mr Cummings posted another excerpt from a report suggesting that imposing a tough lockdown could merely have caused a second peak at a more dangerous time for the NHS
Q – During January, February and March time, how was the international situation being fed into the system?
It was essentially completely discarded by the system. During January, February and March, even after we went into lockdown on the 23rd, the view was that it is inconceivable to do a Taiwan-style lockdown.
Q – Rosie Cooper, Labour MP for West Lancashire
What were the barriers to having the Sage papers published?
There was no push back from Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty or Sage. But what should have happened is we would have had the conversation in January. What happened is we waited until when we were already dangling over the cliff.
I think the Secretary of State for Health should have been fired for at least 15/20 things, including lying to people on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting and publicly.
Mr Cummings making allegations about Matt Hancock
How would you rate the performance of the Department of Health and secretary of state?
Like in much of the Government system, there were many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels who were terribly let down by senior leadership. I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.
There’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect. I think the Secretary of State for Health is certainly one of those people. I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired, so did the cabinet secretary, so did many other senior people.
Why were the financial incentives for people to self-isolate so fatally weak?
Not only was there not a plan, lots of people in the Cabinet Office said we shouldn’t have a plan, we shouldn’t put out a helpline for people to call because it will all just be swamped and we don’t have a system. The shielding plan was literally hacked together in two all-nighters after the 19th, I think, Thursday the 19th.
There wasn’t any plan for shielding, there wasn’t even a helpline for shielding, there wasn’t any plan for financial incentives, there wasn’t any plan for almost anything in any kind of detail at all. There wasn’t any plan for furlough at all, nothing, zero, nada. The problem you are describing about the financial incentives on Covid and isolation, you are obviously completely correct, there should’ve been a whole plan but like on testing, like on shielding, there was no plan.
When the PM tested positive we were told that the Department of Health had been turning down ventilators because the price was marked up.
Why did you describe the Department of Health as a smoking ruin?
There wasn’t any system set up [at the Department of Health] to deal with emergency procurement. When the PM tested positive we were told that the Department of Health had been turning down ventilators because the price was marked up. It completely beggars belief that this kind of thing was happening.
We were told the PPE would not arrive for months because it would take that long to ship. ‘But why are you shipping it?’… ‘That’s what we always do.’ I told them to fly it… at that point you had Trump getting the CIA involved to get the fast track on PPE. Everything was like wading through treacle, that’s why I described it as a smoking ruin.
Q – Greg Clarke
Saying Matt Hancock lied is a serious accusation, can you provide evidence to back that up?
There are numerous examples. I mean in the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required. He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.
He kept basically bouncing back to, we don’t know how dangerous it is, we are destroy the economy by having lockdown, maybe we shouldn’t do it.
Cummings’ claim about Boris Johnson
In mid-April, just before the Prime Minister and I were diagnosed with having Covid ourselves, the Secretary of State for Health told us in the Cabinet room everything is fine with PPE, we’ve got it all covered, etc, etc. When I came back, almost the first meeting I had in the Cabinet room was about the disaster over PPE and how we were actually completely short, hospitals all over the country were running out.
The Secretary of State said in that meeting this is the fault of Simon Stevens, this is the fault of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it’s not my fault, they’ve blocked approvals on all sorts of things. I said to the cabinet secretary, please investigate this and find out if it’s true.
The cabinet secretary came back to me and said it’s completely untrue, I’ve lost confidence in the Secretary of State’s honesty in these meetings. The cabinet secretary said that to me and the cabinet secretary said that to the Prime Minister.
[Did you make a note of that at the time, could you supply that to the committee?] Yes.
There is a very profound question about our political system that at the last election we could a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
Q – Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour MP for for Salford and Eccles
Who in government was arguing against taking action for economic reasons?
The Prime Minister’s view, throughout January, February, March, was – as he said in many meetings – the real danger here is not the disease, the real danger here is the measures that we take to deal with a disease and the economic destruction that that will cause. He had that view all the way through.
‘In fact, one of the reasons why it was so rocky getting from the 14th, when we suggested plan B to him, to actual lockdown was because he kept basically bouncing back to ‘we don’t really know how dangerous it is, we’re going to completely destroy the economy by having lockdown, maybe we shouldn’t do it’. Fundamentally the Prime Minister just never … didn’t really think that this was the big danger.
Now, there have been lots of reports and accusations that the Chancellor was the person who was kind of trying to delay in March. That is completely, completely wrong. The Chancellor was totally supportive of me and of other people as we tried to make this transition from plan A to plan B…
It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position in my personal opinion. I’m not smart.
There is a very profound question about our political system that at the last election we could a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. It shows things have gone extremely, extremely badly wrong.
There’s so many thousands and thousands of wonderful people in this country who could provide better leadership than either of those two. And there’s obviously something terribly wrong with the political parties if that’s the best that they can do.
It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position in my personal opinion. I’m not smart. I’ve not built great things in the world. It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there, and that the choice at the last election was Jeremy Corbyn. It’s also the case that there are wonderful people inside the Civil Service, there are brilliant, brilliant officials all over the place. But the system tends to weed them out from senior management jobs. And the problem in this crisis was very much lions led by donkeys over and over again.
Q – Greg Clark
Did you engage in any unauthorised briefings?
Yes, I did talk to people unauthorised in the sense of actually pretty rarely did I speak to the Prime Minister before I spoke to any journalists. I just got on with things because because my view was the Prime Minister already is about a thousand-times too obsessed with the media.
I did occasionally talk to people but the main person I spoke to was Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC because the BBC has a special position in the country during a crisis and because I was in the room for particular crucial things I could give guidance to her on very big stories.
[Additional Q- Will you share all your communications with the media?] With all respect, chairman, I am not going to hand over my private phone and let you judge what you decide should be in the public domain. Anything that I think is significant to decisions that were made, including decisions that were made, then I will share those. But when you get to that stage you are getting into that territory because you are also sharing things that journalists themselves would think was private.
Q – Laura Trott, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks
In a well-run entity in my opinion you would have had some kind of dictator. If I was PM I would have said Mark Warner is in charge of the whole thing, he has as close to kingly authority as the state has legally to do that, and you’re pushing the boundaries to legality.
Cummings on how he would have run things as PM
Did anyone mention a risk register or a pandemic to you before 2020?
Yes, I had conversations with people about the risk register in general and some specific issues. And also during my time in government I had various specific meetings with people about the question of bioterrorism, which obviously overlaps with pandemic planning. [Additional Q – Did you have any views on the quality of the pandemic plans at that point?]
I thought that many of the plans seemed to me to fall very short of what was actually needed. A lot of things are just power points and they lack detail. But most importantly, I think, I think the process around them as with the pandemic plan is just not open, there’s is not a culture of talking to outside experts. I was talking to some people who said ‘did you ever go read the plan on solar flares’ and I said ‘no’, and they said ‘if you get some expert advice to that you will see that the current Government plan on that is just completely hopeless, if that happens we are all going to be in a worse situation than Covid’.
One thing that I did say to the Cabinet Secretary last year in the summer, and which I ardently hope is actually happening, is there ought to be an absolutely thorough, total review of all such risk register programmes, there ought to be an assumption of making this whole process open and only closed for specific things. For example, one of the other things very high on risk register is the anthrax plan, what happens if terrorists attack with anthrax. Personally, I would be extremely concerned that the plan is as robust as it should be.
Who is responsible for monitoring future threats?
One of the fundamental problems that we find in this whole thing, it is a general problem in Whitehall but it was very, very clear and disastrous during Covid, is you have this system where on the one hand ministers are nominally responsible in various ways for a, b, c. But ministers can’t actually hire and fire anybody in the department. The officials are actually in charge of hiring and firing a, b, c.
So, as soon as you have some kind of major problem you have kind of that Spiderman meme with both Spidermans pointing at each other, it’s like that but with everybody. So, you have [Matt] Hancock pointing at the permanent secretary, you have the permanent secretary pointing at Hancock, and they are both pointing at the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Office is pointing back at them and all the different Spidermans are all pointing at each other saying ‘you are responsible’ and the problem is that everyone is right and everyone is unhappy.’
In my opinion, you would have had a kind of dictator in charge of this. If I was PM I would have said Mark Warner is in charge of the whole thing, he has as close to kingly authority as the state has legally to do that, and you’re pushing the boundaries to legality. He is in charge, and he can fire anybody and jiggle people around.
Q – Katherine Fletcher, Conservative MP for South Ribble
I’d like to return to the data and the raw numbers that you had between January and May last year. What’s your assessment of it?
Concerns is like saying ‘we have concerns about the situation in May 1940’. In all sorts of ways it didn’t exist. The data system on Monday March 16 was the following. It was me wheeling in that whiteboard you’ve seen from the photo, Simon Stevens [head of the NHS] writing down data from the ICUs. Then I’d get my iPhone out and go times two times two times two, then I’d say that if it was doubling every five days these are the numbers we’d be looking at… and everybody would say ‘Jesus, could this possibly be correct?’
There was no proper data system and there was no proper testing data. All we could really do was look at people arriving in hospital, so the whole thing was weeks out of date.
There was no functioning data system. And that was connected with, there was no proper testing data.
Because we didn’t have testing, all we could really do was look at people arriving in hospital. So, the whole thing, therefore, is weeks and weeks out of date. Once you’re looking at ICU numbers as your leading indicator, you know that you’re in a world of trouble… By the time I came back from being ill on Tuesday April 14 they then had an absolutely brilliant data system and were starting to build models and predictions… that completely transformed decision making.
Q – Aaron Bell, Tory MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme
What were you doing in the first two weeks of March when you had said there wasn’t a plan.
I was having meeting after meeting with people trying to figure out where we were.
[…] I have been critical of the Prime Minister. But… if you dropped, you know, Bill Gates or someone like that into that job on the 1st of March, the most competent people in the world you could possibly find, any of them would have had a complete nightmare. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister made some very bad misjudgments and got some very serious things wrong. It’s also the case, there’s no doubt, that he was extremely badly let down by the whole system. And it was a system failure, of which I include myself in that as well, I also failed.
Are you here today to help learn lessons or settle scores?
I was invited here to try and explain the truth about what happened. I think the families of the thousands of people who died deserve the truth. [Additional Q – What was your motivation for working for the PM?] I went in because in summer 2019 the situation that the country was facing was either to sort out the constitutional crisis and have a new agenda, or have Jeremy Corbyn and a second referendum which would have been absolutely catastrophic… that’s why I got involved.
I do think that one way in which this could have been even worse than it was, if you imagine that Parliament of 2019, that hung parliament. If you imagine that Parliament colliding with this disaster in January 2020, God only knows what would have happened. If that broken Parliament had limped on into 2020 and confronted this crisis, I think that we’d be now be looking at … I think, frankly, the whole system would have would have melted down and fallen apart.
Q – Greg Clark
You were a person of significant influence… what you’ve described is being like a whistle blower in a sense… did you forget to blow the whistle?
It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan, it’s true that I helped to try to create what an official plan was. I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.
If you’ve got an official plan, you’ve got all the Sage advice, you’ve got the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet Secretary, everyone saying you’ve got to do this and if we don’t do it and if we try and do something different and stop it now it’s going to many times worse in the winter, I was asking myself in that kind of two-week period if I hit the panic button and persuade the Prime Minister to shift and then it all goes completely wrong, I’m going to have killed god knows how many hundreds of thousands of people.
I only had the confidence to do that once I knew that people who are much smarter than me had looked at it and said basically the Sage groupthink is wrong, the DH groupthink is wrong, we’ve got to change course. I apologise for not acting earlier and if I had acted earlier then lots of people might still be alive.
Q – Jeremy Hunt
On March 12 we stopped community testing following very clear Sage advice that when there was sustained community transmission is would no longer be useful. Sage didn’t even model Korean-style test and tracing until May, so why was there such a long delay?
Fundamentally it goes back to what we discussed in the previous session. The logic was that if you were going for herd immunity for September, you wouldn’t take testing as an urgent priority.
What happened when I got back on the 13th was I was getting calls saying Hancock was interfering in the building of the test and trace system because he he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month.
Cummings on Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s target of hitting 100,000 tests a day
That’s why the Department of Health said in that week that we didn’t need to test anybody any more. The view was that 60/70% of the country are going to get it, that’s going to happen for sure, so why would you bother testing people.
No one challenged that idea strongly until we challenged it strongly during the shift to Plan B.
The core of the Government kind of collapsed when the Prime Minister got ill himself, because he’s suddenly gone and then people are literally thinking that he might die.
By the time I came back on April 13 we had this terrible situation where Alex Cooper (senior civil servant) and his team were trying to build a whole new test and trace system. In my view disastrously, the Secretary of State had made – when the PM was on his near deathbed – this pledge to do 100,000 tests by the end of April. This was an incredibly stupid thing to do because we already had that goal internally.
What then happened when I came back around the 13th was I started getting calls and No 10 were getting calls saying Hancock is interfering with the building of the test and trace system because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month. We had half the Government with me in No 10 calling around frantically saying do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term.
We had half the government calling around frantically saying ‘Do not do what Hancock says’.
And we had Hancock calling them all saying down tools on this, do this, hold tests back so I can hit my target. In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’. It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.
That was one of the reasons why the Cabinet Secretary and I agreed that we had to take testing away from Hancock and put it in a separate agency.
What the point at which we said we were going to do it the South Korean way?
It was all very disjointed. We didn’t even have a plan for lockdown, so we were trying to get to lockdown and also get people to work on what this South Korean thing would look like, then the Prime Minister goes down and nearly dies…
What I wanted to do was essentially the same as had happened in South Korea and Taiwan and places where you start using bank data, you start using mobile phone data to triangulate where people are, use the data coming off cell phone towers and things like that. So it wasn’t just the testing system you had to get built up. It was also the whole data architecture as well. And, of course, we had huge legal problems because you had a whole bunch of people coming back in the legal system saying first of all, EU data law or GDPR basically means all of this stuff is illegal, medium term.
Secondly, a whole bunch of things around European Convention of Human Rights, right to privacy, etcetera etcetera. So you had … we’ve got to build this testing, we got to build this data, we’ve then got to think about all these complexities about the legal side…
[Boris Johnson] laughed and said, ‘You’re right, I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos than I am of the chaos, chaos isn’t that bad because chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge.
Alleged comments made by Boris Johnson
It took too long to get set up, the system was hugely disrupted in April because of the Hancock pledge… fundamentally this should have been happening in January. There was all this bureaucratic infighting in April and remember the Prime Minister wasn’t back then either, Dominic Raab was doing a brilliant job chairing the meetings, but this was a huge call and very difficult for him to basically start carving up the Department of Health in April.
So, essentially, we never really got to grips with it until the Prime Minister was back in the office and the cabinet secretary and I could say to him we’ve got to do the track and trace thing in a completely different way.
I warned the Prime Minister, if we don’t fire the Secretary of State (Matt Hancock) and we don’t get the testing in someone else’s hands, we are going to kill people and it will be a catastrophe. And there was the constant, repeated lying about PPE… The Cabinet Secretary told me the British system is not set up to deal with a Secretary of State who repeatedly lies in meetings.
Q – Graham Stringer, Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton
Can you give me any idea why Matt Hancock is still the Secretary of State?
He came close to removing him in April but fundamentally wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t just me saying this… pretty much every senior person in Number 10 said he couldn’t go into autumn with the same system in place. There was certainly no good reason for keeping him.
Could you not have changed things by threatening to resign?
Yes, I thought about it in March but we managed to bounce things do so I didn’t do it. I had similar conversations in September, and I had a conversation with the PM a night before an operation and said I was reflecting on things, and that you need to know that I am leaving at the latest Friday December 18 and I think it’s best if you and I part ways.
He [Mr Johnson] asked why and I said because this whole system is chaos, this building is chaos, you know perfectly well that from having worked with me I can get great teams together and manage them, but you are more frightened of me having the power to stop the chaos than you are of the chaos, and this is a completely unsustainable position for us both to be in.
I am not prepared to work with people like Hancock any more, I have told you umpteen times you have got to remove him, you won’t, it’s going to be a disaster in the autumn and therefore it’s time that I should go. He laughed and said ‘you’re right, I am more frightened of you having the power to stop the chaos, chaos isn’t that bad, chaos means that everyone has to look to me to see who’s in charge’.
Do you have an insight into how the decision was taken to send untested people back to care homes?
We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.
When we realised in April that this had happened the PM said after coming back from being ill, ‘What on earth are you telling me’. Hancock told us in the Cabinet room that people were going be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?
We were told categorically in March that people would be tested before they went back to homes, we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened.
Now while the Government rhetoric was we have put a shield around care homes and blah blah blah, it was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.
Q – Anum Qaisar-Javed, SNP MP for Airdrie and Shotts
Who was advising the PM and government not to close the borders and on what basis?
I heard this discussed several times with the PM in Number 10. He was told repeatedly not to close the borders because it would have no effect. At this time another kind of group-think thing was that it was basically racist to close the borders. And in retrospect that was obviously completely wrong.
After April, though, it’s a completely different story, once we’ve switched to plan b. Fundamentally, there was no proper border policy because the Prime Minister never wanted a proper border policy. Repeatedly in meeting after meeting I and others said all we have to do is download the Singapore or Taiwan documents in English and impose them here.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications if the Prime Minister changes his mind tens a day and then calls up the media contradicting his own policy.
We’re imposing all of these restrictions on people domestically but people can see that everyone is coming in from infected areas, it’s madness, it’s undermining the whole message that we should take it seriously. At that point he was back to, ‘lockdown was all a terrible mistake, I should’ve been the mayor of Jaws, we should never have done lockdown 1, the travel industry will all be destroyed if we bring in a serious border policy’. To which, of course, some of us said there’s not going to be a tourism industry in the autumn if we have a second wave, the whole logic was completely wrong.
Q – Barbara Keeley, Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South
Looking back after Covid was seeded in the care home do you think the government was taking the risk of transmission into care homes as seriously as it should… and was it the start of the Prime Minister’s thinking of ‘it’s only killing 80-year-olds’?
It was obviously not being taken seriously. Like all of these things it wasn’t deliberate, it was a function of the fact that the system was overwhelmed. The Prime Minister’s views on Covid and who it had killed were relevant in September, October but not his point.
Like with Rashford. The Director of Communications said don’t pick a fight with Rashford, the Prime Minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice.
Q – Luke Evans, Tory MP for Bosworth
What would you scare the government out of 10 on its communication both to the NHS and the public?
Some of the people working on the communications were some of the best people in the world, and one of the great myths about the thing was that bad communications was the reason for all of these problems. But fundamentally the reasons were bad policy, bad decisions, bad planning, bad operational capability. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got great people doing communications if the Prime Minister changes his mind tens a day and then calls up the media contradicting his own policy.
Like with Rashford. The Director of Communications said don’t pick a fight with Rashford, the Prime Minister decided to pick a fight and then surrendered twice.
There was a certain infamous trip and that had huge influence on how people perceived the lockdown… where do you draw the line for you having personal responsibility over decisions both in government and over the way you conduct yourself?
In autumn 2019 I had to move out of my house because of security threats. On February 28 when I was dealing with the Covid problem on the Friday night I was down in Westminster and my wife called there was a gang of people saying they were going to come into the house and kill everybody inside. She was alone in the house at the time with our three-year-old.
After that I spoke to the PM and the deputy cabinet secretary and it was suggested that I either move my family into government accommodation or move them off to family. On the 22nd the story happened with the fake quote saying I wanted everyone to die and that caused further problems.
The whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is – and then it undermined public confidence in the whole thing.
Mr Cummings on the Barnard Castle incident
After that weekend I said to my wife, ‘Right, we’ve got to get out of here on Friday’. So before the whole thing happened with the PM on sick and my wife calling up on the Friday it had already been decided that I was going to move my family out of London despite the Covid rules… what happened is because of this we kept the whole thing very quiet, almost nobody in Number 10 knew about it.
When the story then came out much of the story was completely wrong, it suggested that the police had spoken to me about my behaviour over lockdown rules but that was completely false… the PM and I agreed that because of the security things we would stonewall the story and not talk about it…
The Prime Minister and I agreed that because of the security things, we would basically just stonewall the story and not say anything about it. I was extremely mindful of the problem that when you talk about these things, you cause more trouble for yourself, and I’d already put my wife and child in the firing line on it. So I said, I’m not talking about this, we should shut our mouths about it.
I ended up giving the whole rose garden thing where what I said was true, but we left out a kind of crucial part of it all. And it just … the whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is – and then it undermined public confidence in the whole thing – the truth is, if I just when the Prime Minister said on a Monday, ‘we can’t hold this line, we’re going to have to explain things’, if I just basically sent my family back out of London and said here’s the truth to the public, I think people would have understood the situation.
It was a terrible misjudgment not to do that. So I take … the Prime Minister got that wrong, I got that wrong.
Q – Dean Russell, Tory MP for Watford, asking about Mr Cummings’ role in decision making.
If I could have clicked my fingers and done things there would have been a serious border policy, masks would have been compulsory, Hancock would have been fired.
People in Westminster underestimated the influence I had in July and December 2019 but massively exaggerated the influence I had after the election. The whole idea I was the second most powerful person in the country and all of that was massively wrong and that I could just click my fingers and do this and do that and do the other was completely wrong.
If I could have clicked my fingers and done things there would have been a serious border policy, masks would have been compulsory, Hancock would have been fired.
Fundamentally the Prime Minister and I do not agree about Covid. After March he thought that the lesson to be learned is we shouldn’t have done a lockdown, we should have focused on the economy, it was all a disaster, ‘I should have been the mayor in Jaws’. I thought that perspective was completely mad. I had very little influence on Covid stuff, I mean I tried, I made arguments, but as you can see on pretty much all the major arguments I basically lost.
In the summer I brought in Simon Case because I thought the PM wasn’t listening to me, our relations are getting worse and worse, his girlfriend is desperate to get rid of me and all my team, if I brought in someone official then maybe he would listen to them.
Your advice was not being taken, was that because you were not bringing people along with you to give that advice to get the Prime Minister to listen, what was the reason for that?
It’s hard to generalise about some of these things. I think on lots of stuff on Covid actually there was a centre of gravity in No 10 with the same view that agreed with me, but the Prime Minister just wouldn’t do it. On many, many issues, me, the cabinet secretary, the chancellor, other senior people agreed but the PM just wouldn’t do what we advised. The problem wasn’t necessarily that I couldn’ t persusade other people. Everybody was screaming on quarantine ‘Have a policy, set it out clearly and stick to it, you cannot keep changing your mind every time the Telegraph has an editorial on the subject’ everybody agreed with me about that regardless of what they thought the real policy should be.
Nobody could find away around the problem of the Prime Minister just going like a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.
Q – Jeremy Hunt, asking again about Barnard Castle and the reason for the trip there
I wish I had never heard of Barnard Castle and I wish I had never gone and that the whole nightmare had never happened.
If I was going to make up a story I would come up with a lot of a better one than that right? It’s such a weird story. A few days earlier I had been sitting writing a will, what to do if I die. I was then thinking about coming down on the 12th, the Sunday, but I was basically too ill to do that. My wife said ‘look you’re in a state, you can barely walk, are you sure you can go back to work?’ It seemed to me if you are going to drive 300 miles to go back to work the next day then pottering down the road 30 miles and back to see how you feel after just coming off what you thought might have been your deathbed doesn’t seem, it didn’t seem crazy to me at the time.
Did it not seem crazy to do it with your wife and child in the car with you?
No it didn’t. It didn’t seem crazy at the time. It was like, okay let’s get in the car, go up and down the road, if I feel bad, come up, see how I feel as I get going. I completely understand why people thought the whole thing was weird. Obviously I wish I had never heard of Barnard Castle and I wish I had never gone and that the whole nightmare had never happened. Hopefully people can – even if they don’t agree – they can understand, as I say, I can only apologise for the whole debacle.
What is it that you think that we got right on the vaccine that was so different to some of the other things we’ve been talking about?
I think fundamentally on vaccines there was clear responsibility, there was someone who was actually in charge of it Kate Bingham, she was working with Patrick Vallance, she built a team who actually understood what they were doing and she had the kind of strength of character not to be pushed around. We had a formal thing that was ‘You’re in charge of it, you report directly to the PM, don’t report to the Department of Health’ so she knew who her boss was on it. We also said to her, treat this like a wartime thing, ignore rules, if lawyers get in your way come to us, we’ll find ways of bulldozing them out of your way.
The conventional wisdom was that we were not going to get a vaccine in 2020. There’s a network of people, Bill Gates-type people, that were saying completely rethink the whole paradigm of how you do this. Build in parallel.
Patrick Vallance texted me on the 24th of March. There is no doubt we could have done this quicker than we did. The conventional wisdom was that we were not going to get a vaccine in 2020. There’s a network of people, Bill Gates-type people, that were saying completely rethink the whole paradigm of how you do this. Build in parallel, here is the science thing, here is the manufacturing thing, here is the distribution, here is the supply, here is the logistics, here is the data.
The normal thing is you do things like that sequentially. What Bill Gates and people like that were saying was you need to think much more like some of the classic programmes of the past. The Manhattan Project in World War II, the Apollo programme, build it all in parallel.
What Bill Gates was saying and what Patrick and what Patrick’s team was saying was the actual expected return on this is so high that even if it does turn out to be all wasted billions it’s still a good gamble.
Patrick said take it out of the Department for Health, will you support me on that with the PM? I said absolutely damn sure I will. I spoke to the cabinet secretary and the cabinet secretary agreed. It’s inconceivable we can leave it with DH and the Prime Minister decided in about 90 seconds fine do it and that was it. There was a little bit of whinging here and there. There was a little bit of pushback in some quarters saying ‘This is extremely risky, if you don’t go down the EU approach and that works and we do it ourselves and that doesn’t work you guys are all going to be in a huge political hole.’
But you have to take risks, and when we looked at the EU plan it just looked like the classic Brussels thing… thank goodness that was one of the few things I think we got right.
Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry
Did the PM specifically acknowledge that pursuing herd immunity would result in an excess of 500,000 deaths and was he ok with that death toll?
When we had the meeting on the 14th, the whole point of that meeting was looking at the numbers about what the herd immunity by September really means. It’s on the best case 260,000 dead. We can’t do that, we just can’t do it, we’re going to have to gamble on an alternative plan. But remember at that point the conventional wisdom was that if you took the alternative plan there could be three times more dead by the autumn.
Do you support a call for a public inquiry led by a judge?
Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.
I don’t know about led by the judge because history shows they often get down to the bottom of it, but the principle of it, yes. I think the idea that an kind of serious inquiry doesn’t start until next year is completely terrible – tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die, there is absolutely no excuse for delaying that because the reason why so many people died are still in place now.
This has to be honestly explained. If the Government, if No 10, today won’t tell the truth about the official plan, which they briefed the media about and described on TV a year ago, what on Earth else is going on in there now?The elected representatives of the families of people who died who didn’t need to die must get to grips with this now, there’s absolutely no excuse for delaying it…
Why on earth can MPs now not take control and say it is intolerable that this could be delayed. The elected representatives of those who died who did not need to die need to get grips to it right now. And the longer it’s delayed, the more people will rewrite memories, the more documents will go astray, the more the whole thing will just become cancerous.
Why is the PM running away from meeting the bereaved families?
I can’t imagine why.
A year after the first lockdown almost a billion pounds in government contracts has been awarded to 15 firms linked to Conservative donors. During your time at Downing Street was there concern about the transparency of the contracts process?
Initially no. In February, March, all of our concern was the disaster coming at us. At the beginning concerns were about procurement and speed and getting PPE to the frontline. Later on there were concerns yes over how it had all been done. But that didn’t cross my radar until around May.
Some contracts were completely unusable. In hindsight what processes do we need to stop the government throwing millions of pounds down the toilet in wrong items.
I said many times before that the procurement system is completely unfit for its purposes in Whitehall. Ironically in January and February when I should have been paying more attention to Covid, one of the big issues I was dealing with was procurement. I was bringing in outside experts to address the issue as we didn’t have time to sort this out before the crisis hit. The fundamental thing is there needs to be a legal, proper, emergency, fast-track process. There also needs to be people with the skills to execute that at speed and at scale.
The obvious lesson [to learn is] changing the legal framework and changing the recruitment and training so you have people in place who can do that. We need an emergency system where people are authorised to execute at scale and fast. But that just did not exist.
If you were advising the Prime Minister would you be supporting President Biden’s move to support lifting patent protection. What is your opinion on vaccine IP?
I don’t really have an opinion on it. I suspect Bill Gates knows more than President Biden does. If he is saying it’s a mistake then we should take his opinion very seriously.
Q -Greg Clarke, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
You said it was Patrick Vallance’s idea to set up the vaccine task force?
He had the idea, but there were lots of people thinking of similar kind of things around the same thing. He wanted to do it outside of the Department of Health. Patrick and I both spoke to the cabinet secretary about it.
Who was instrumental in the Government deal with AstraZeneca?
Patrick Vallance was instrumental in that. He used to work in vaccines so he knew the key players involved. At one point there was a terrible fright that the Department for Health was about sign a duff contract on AstraZeneca, which would not have given us the rights to the vaccine, or they would have been questionable.
Patrick intervened and made sure the contract went properly. He deserves enormous credit for his role in the vaccine task force. He was the first official to come up with the idea, he pushed it and he deserves enormous credit from the country for that.
Were ‘human challenge trials’ contemplated?
To stress, this is not my idea. Normally in vaccine trials you have to take time to go through the testing process. However it is un-arguable what should have happened in this case. The companies who made the vaccines created the vaccine itself in literally hours in January. What should have happened is Governments like the UK and US should have gone to them and said ‘we will take this idea and pay 5-10,000 people to be injected with Covid’, then others get placebos, and then everyone takes their chances. If you die your family gets compensation. That would obviously have been the best thing to do as it is fast. We could have cut the time doing this and had vaccines in peoples’ arms by September.
The fact we didn’t do that, were we constrained by regulation or a distaste for the risk involved in injecting healthy people with Covid?
Fundamentally it was never properly explored. People suggested it and it was talked about. It was one of the many things I should have forced harder. As far as I understand it was never properly discussed but obviously should have been.
You’ve raised concerns that the plan for vaccination or the adjustment to new variants… I sense from some of your recent tweets you think that’s not as sound as you think it should be – have I got that right?
Yeah I mean obviously I’m not in government any more but I talk to people who are involved with it and people have just expressed concern to me that since Kate Bingham left, the kind of normal entropy process of Whitehall has got its fingers on the thinking and operation around this, and there hasn’t been the kind of very aggressive approach that some inside government want about thinking through the danger of variants and how to make sure that the vaccine task force is ahead of the game on the whole thing. I can’t go into any details because I’m not aware of them, but I’ve had senior people express this concern to me, yes.
Is that a personnel or an organisational concern?
I think it’s a combination of both, yes, I think there’s been a shift in personnel as far as I understand it and concerns about the orginsational setup.
You’ve spoken very positively about Kate Bingham’s role in this – and others. She went through a difficult time in the autumn in which she was being criticised roundly by, from a lot of quarters, and some of that briefing was alleged to come from No 10, were you aware of that at the time?
I was aware that there was briefing against her, I was told at the time by officials that they thought that most of this had come from DH, but like most of these things we never really got to the bottom of it. Certainly nobody who you could describe as being part of my core team, obviously was involved with that, and nobody – I asked all of them do you know where this is coming from?
The closest we got to is, essentially, people in the system kind of feeling either their noses put out of joint, or jealous about her profile or whatnot. One of the bad thing that happened is lots of outsiders who came in to volunteer to help, the same thing happened in terms of test and trace, people dropped massively lucrative careers to come and help test and trace also got trashed in the press from parts of Whitehall, which I thought was terrible. Kate, I think got caught in that sort of crossfire.
So you’re not aware of any particular briefing against her from No 10 but conversely there was radio silence from No 10 in terms of defending her and my understanding is she had to threaten to go on a broadcast round personally before there was a response from No 10. Again were you aware of that?
I tried to stay very far away from kind of day to day media things, I was, I’ve got a vague recollection of a time when there was some kind of problem, I think she might have called the PM directly or something and said essentially that I’m very unhappy about what’s going on and I want some support from No 10. But I wasn’t part of that conversation and I don’t really know what happened, I’m afraid.
Did you not feel, observing, even as a reader of the newspapers and the blogs that hold on we should be backing the work that she’s doing?
Yeah, I mean as far as I was concerned we were backing, we were, I mean, we obviously supported the work of the vaccine taskforce.
But in terms of Kate Bingham’s role in that?
I mean No 10 as far as I was concerned and as far as I was aware No 10 was always supportive of the vaccine taskforce and supportive of Kate Bingham. As I said I’ve tried to escape, you know, I tried to keep out of the way of lots of conversations with the PM about briefing or leaks or that sort of thing so I’m not the person to speak to about it. All I basically remember is, there was some briefing against her, I asked at a couple of meetings where do we think this is coming from, the best guess of people in No 10 was people in Whitehall have had their noses put out of joint. I also vaguely remember some Sunday Times story about her but I can’t remember what that was.
Just looking back and thinking of the system, when you appeared before the science and technology committee you talked about the deal that you did with the PM when you came in to be his advisor in Downing Street. You said there were four components of it – get Brexit done, double the science budget, create a new research agency modeled on DARPA, and the fourth was to change the way that Whitehall works.
You’ve talked about this a lot in your blog in 2019, you talked about turning government institutions responsible for decisions about billions of lives and trillions of dollars from hopeless to high performance, so this was one of the things you thought about and you brought into Whitehall.
Looking back, as we are and you can now, some of the failures have been organisational and operational. The fact that we had to stop testing in the community because we didn’t have enough tests. The fact that we ran out of tests in September. Why did something that was such a priority in which you, was part of the deal for you being in Downing Street, why was it not possible to have made good progress on that during the nine months that you were there, say from July to the spring of 2020?
Well I mean July 2019 to the election was essentially just completely dominated by the constitutional crisis over Brexit and we did not really have the bandwidth or the real authority to start trying to change all sorts of things in terms of Whitehall, we had to be very focused on what it was we were trying to change. For example we did chain the whole decision making structure around the negotiations and around Brexit. We did change, radically and effectively.
It wasn’t Cummings against the system, it was all sensible people realised that this was a huge gap in Whitehall capabilities and we had to try and change it, both structurally and in terms of the specific skills
I started work on things like the procurement reform, but it’s also the case that we just, the situation was so overwhelming, particularly after the kind of prorogation and the Supreme Court judgement, that, in September 2019 I had senior officials come to me and say the system’s creaking and very shortly senior people are just going to stop obeying orders from this PM and are going to regard it as not a legitimate government, so it was a really, really weird time.
That was an environment in which you could certainly start saying, right we’re going to have all of these huge shifts to the basic wiring of Downing Street and Whitehall. Once we came back in January I did begin a lot of this process, I talked to the Cabinet Secretary about making various changes to the civil HR system.
As I’ve said, I started a whole process from the beginning of January. And the data side, the problem was that we basically already had a kind of six weeks for coming back… to Covid sort of overtaking things from mid-February.
One of the things that did happen, which was relevant to the September decision, was building the, what’s known as the analytical private office in No 10, which I think will be a permanent institution, will become a permanent part of how every subsequent PM works, I think no one in their right mind would possibly get rid of it, and everybody involved with it knows it’s been a great success.
So I think that is, that shows, if you read the media you’d think this was some huge row between me and all the officials and everyone hating it and everyone screaming at each other but the truth is, pretty much all the good senior officials pretty much supported me on that and helped me do it.
It wasn’t Cummings against the system, it was all sensible people realised that this was a huge gap in Whitehall capabilities and we had to try and change it, both structurally and in terms of the specific skills.
You’ve talked about the success of the vaccine taskforce. Are there lessons to be learnt from that that can be applied across Government?
Certainly I think, as I’ve said, some of the core principles of who is actually responsible. Who is actually responsible for the team. Jeremy knows, Greg knows, the British state is set up almost by design to create a dysfunctional system because you have to go out and potentially resign over things that are being done and you cannot fire a single person apart from your SPADs in your department. Literally nothing that works well in the real world ever works like that. It’s a completely crazy system. It is a system where responsibility, by design, is diffused and no one knows who is really in charge.
One of the key things in the vaccine taskforce was we tried to keep things very simple and have how do really good things work, know who the boss is, it is her team. Kate is going to pick the people, Patrick is going to give scientific advice, and if it turns out Kate Bingham is no good [clicks fingers], we’ll get rid of her like that and we will put someone else in who is responsible.
That was the whole reason for the approach. She picked the team, she did a good job of picking the team, and everyone knew they were working for her. They were not working for Hancock, they were not working for the Permanent Secretary in DH, they were not working for the Cabinet Secretary. That very very simple principles are the core of the difference between well-run organisations and badly run organisations.
So I think there’s obvious lessons to learn. The problem is that in much of Whitehall it kind of suits everybody to be the Spidermans of everyone pointing at each other and saying it was him, no it was him, no it is him, no it is him.
Changing that is, even after a disaster of the scale that we have seen, going to be a really big job to have those conversations like ‘well is the Secretary of State really in charge of this’, ‘can they really do that’, because the Cabinet Secretary, of all the people that have criticised Mark Sedwill, but he was perfectly within his right to say to the Prime Minister that Matt Hancock was the minister responsible. He was correct.
But we were also correct to say but so-and-so is in charge of this and so-and-so is in charge of that. I can’t fire them. Fundamentally the only person that can fire them is the Cabinet Secretary and the only way that happens is if the Prime Minister tells the Cabinet Secretary to fire them. The whole thing doesn’t work if it is like that.
Moving on to Covid therapeutics, obviously success in that field, but you have said previously that funding bureaucracy held back progress. Can you tell us more about that and how those issues were overcome.
In February/March various scientists and entities came to Patrick Vallance and me and basically just said ‘there’s a standard kind of scientific funding process. It takes a long time to get through but we’re in this wartime situation can you basically bulldoze some of the rules out the way? Can you speak to UKRI etc’. We did do. Both Patrick and I talked to UKRI and other parts of the system and said ‘here’s what the blocks are, ABCD, can you try and scupper these and basically create a fast-track process’ so if people like Paul Nurse call up and say we can do blah you can just go [clicks fingers] ‘right how much, £10million, done, how much £20million done etc etc’.
I think it certainly wasn’t perfect but it did change quite dramatically February to April.
The recovery trial has been respected around the world in its success. What do you put their success down to?
I think similar sort of principles. Clear responsibility, some great people in charge. This guy called Jeremy Farrar played a critical role in it. Part of my job is I know far more about the things that went wrong than the things that went right. If things seemed to be going right and people were saying that’s okay I had so many other things to deal with that I kind of didn’t really go into it so the recovery trials I don’t really know that much about because people just said ‘it seems to be going well’. I only got involved, I think Jeremy Farrar called me up and said ‘I’ve hit the following problem’. Otherwise I just kind of let people get on with it.
Now these are UK-wide endeavours. One of the criticisms being the disjointed approach across the UK, the devolved administrations in particular, what do you recall of discussions over using public health legislation with respect to, or in comparison to, civil contingencies legislation?
Again, my memory is pretty hazy but fundamentally the Cabinet Secretary says the Civil Contingencies Act is essentially useless. It was drafted back in the 70s, it has had a few tweaks but it’s completely unfit for its job. If we try to rely on a lot of its powers we face the problem that various people who don’t like it will go to courts and we will suddenly be bogged down by judicial reviews at a time when we haven’t got three weeks to go to court even on a fast-track process.
So that was a big problem and that was basically why we introduced the Emergency Coronavirus Bill. Again, one of the reasons I think now for why I think you guys are right to be having this inquiry is upgrading the whole Civil Contingencies Act is a critical thing. One very simple example of that is the whole question around enforcement. One constant problem that we had all the way through the spring and summer and into the winter was the police say their powers are unclear, ‘we can’t do this, the courts won’t uphold that’ blah blah blah, and the emergency powers are unclear in various ways.
So we kind of found ourselves in this situation of people arguing for greater and greater restrictions on certain law-abiding people because we felt we couldn’t actually enforce certain rules against non-law abiding people. It was a terrible ratchet to get into. I’m not at all knowledgeable about that but it is an important question to get into.
Q – Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
Perhaps I can start by just asking Mr Cummings to give us a brief summary of what were the key decisions taken during the autumn?
I guess the most significant were that mid-September Sage and Patrick Vallance advised that we take rapid action and do some kind of short sharp burst because of where the numbers were going. The Prime Minister decided not to do that. We then went round the houses on that decision and then ended up doing it on the 31st of October.
In the meantime the Government careered around all over the shop trying to do these local lockdowns and other things but, in the end, it didn’t work. Is it useful if I kind of spell out what the actual meetings were?
That would be helpful and then Jeremy Hunt is going to follow it up.
Essentially what happened is that in the week of roundabout the 15th of September. I think the 18th is the Friday. Essentially Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty came to Number 10 and said ‘we and Sage think that we need to consider a kind of two-week or possibly longer lockdown’.
Bear in mind back in the summer, when we were discussing the whole reopening plan, I asked Chris Whitty ‘what do you think the chances are that we will have R over 1 again by September and back to problems’. He said ‘I think before schools go back R will be below 1 but it is over 50 per cent likely the R will be over 1 if we bring schools back in September.’
Many of us had said, in the summer, to the Prime Minister ‘do not tell everyone get back to work. Don’t do this whole everybody get back to work and Covid’s over’, but at that point his main concern was about the economy so over July/August the whole impotus of the Government was ‘pretend we can get back to normal’.
So 17th Patrick and Chris come to Number 10 and say we should lockdown. I say to the Prime Minister quote ‘the lesson of the first wave was earlier the better when dealing with exponentials like this’. Then on the Friday there was a long discussion of it with the PM. Essentially at the end of that he decided we’re not going to do anything.
I said ‘listen, we all lived through the March horror. I’ve got a dreadful feeling about this. We’re making the same mistake’. I said ‘before you make a final decision on this I want to do something that sounds a bit wierd. I want to have another meeting on Monday where what we do it we imagine the meeting is at the end of October. We’ll have all the documents presented to you.’
So I’m talking about Monday 21, I think it is. So the meeting itself will be on Monday 21 September, but we will set the whole thing in the future, at the end of October. And we will look at the data with what is our best guess this is what the situation is going to be like at the end of October. And talk through all of that. Because, if you’re going to look at that then and then decide to lockdown, we should do it now, that’s the whole lesson of March.
Cabinet Secretary says ‘I completely agree, that’s a very good idea, we’ll get the data team on it etc etc.’ So the data team, which by in February/March didn’t really exist, it was Ben Warner, by now there was a really, really good mix of officials and SPADs [special advisers] in Number 10. They crunched all of these numbers with SAGE data and other stuff over that weekend.
Then on the Sunday evening, there was a meeting with a combination of SAGE scientists and some external people. By this point, unfortunately, the Prime Minister was listening to various people who were saying things like ‘there’s already herd immunity in the population, there won’t be any second wave’ etc etc. So we had this meeting in the Cabinet room on Sunday evening. Patrick and Chris gave their view, a guy called Henigan and a woman from Oxford called Professor Gupta I think it was, gave the kind of ‘don’t lockdown’ view.
John Edmunds said, he was on SAGE, ‘surely we’re going to learn the lessons of March, here’s what the data is going to be, the only logic of not going a lockdown then will be that you’re not going to do it at all. There’s no way that you’re not going to make that decision, just do it now otherwise it’s all going to be worse.’ Prime Minister said ‘I’m not persuaded of that’.
We then had the hypothetical meeting in the future and there was a brilliant young woman called Catherine Cutts who we brought in from outside Whitehall who kind of presented all of this data. So we set it all out to the Prime Minister, here’s this stuff – there’s a huge contrast at this point to what I was describing in March. In March, no testing data, no proper data system, me scribbling things on a whiteboard with an iPhone.
By now you’ve got a completely professional team, really on it, they’ve got all the testing data, they’ve got all the NHS data, it’s all really clear. They set it all out. And just from some of our point of view, it’s just completely obvious that in this hypothetical point five, six weeks hence, when we’re looking at that, we’re back to we are now days from you’re going to have to act now or you’re going to push the tripwire by where the NHS is going to get smashed again. That’s what all data is showing us.
And the Prime Minister wasn’t persuaded about this. I said to him, ‘the whole lesson of what happened before is that by delaying, the lockdown came later, it had to be more severe, it had to last longer. The economic disruption is even worse, anyway, and we’ll have killed god knows how many thousands of people in the meantime who got Covid, who wouldn’t have caught it if we act now. Surely we’ve got to learn the lessons from the past.’ And the Prime Minister decided no and said, basically, we’re just going to sit and hope.
Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
Let’s pause that point and we’ll go into some detail, we’re going to go with Carol Monaghan before Jeremy Hunt.
Q – Carol Monaghan, SNP MP for Glasgow North West
Mr Cummings you said earlier in your evidence today that you should’ve been hitting the panic button back in February/March time. So we’re now talking September, we’ve learned lots of lessons, we’ve got a handle of things – were you hitting the panic button in September?
And was the Prime Minister aware of how seriously you were taking things at that point?
Yes. At that point so, as I explained before, in February/March I was very frightened is the only way to describe it, about hitting the panic button because I was worried what if I’m wrong and what if the people telling me are wrong. And the data was completely hopeless etc etc. By this time it was a completely different situation. Basically all credible serious people, in my opinion, were saying essentially the same thing. So I was very, very clear with him about it.
So you were pressing for a circuit breaker lockdown in September?
So if the Prime Minister wasn’t persuaded, in your words, of the importance of this, whose advice was he taking?
He wasn’t taking any advice. He was just making his own decision that he was going to ignore the advice.
Did his Cabinet agree with his decisions?
Cabinet wasn’t involved or asked.
Did you hear anything from Cabinet members about these decisions?
There were sort of different views. I’ve been very critical of Matt Hancock but I think Hancock agreed with me actually in September about acting then. But there wasn’t any formal Cabinet meeting to discuss it or if there was it wasn’t actually really a real discussion that affected anything.
So all these decisions were entirely the Prime Minister’s?
On the September lockdown correct.
Now I understand the meeting with SAGE representatives, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister back in September, where they were told of the importance of that lockdown –
Yes, I was there.
You were there as well? Okay. What was the Chancellor’s view on this?
The Chancellor’s view was, the Department for Health who want to do this have no plan. There is no plan for what to do. Like we’ve just gone through a whole thing where we’ve had all these arguments in June/July, and some people like Dom said don’t do for work, don’t do just for health of the economy, but you decided to do it. And now the Department for Health are hitting the panic button again and saying ‘well we’ve got to stop for two weeks’ and then what? Are we going to tell everyone to go back to work again? And then two weeks later say the opposite? There is no plan, there is no coherence to anything.
So knowing that the Department for Health was chaotic in its approach here, were the economic arguments outweighing everything else at this point?
For the Prime Minister yes.
And there was talk, and certainly the Scottish Government were pushing hard following that SAGE advice for an extension of the furlough scheme. Why was that not discussed more seriously at that point? Because it was only eventually extended at the very last minute.
I can’t remember all the kind of time details on that I’m afraid but I know all the way along, Rishi and his team took the whole issue about furlough, remember they came up with the idea, it wasn’t us at Number 10. They came up with the idea to do it, and once the Prime Minister said ‘at each stage I’m going to do X and I’ve made a decision’, the Chancellor always extremely competently and extremely ably and effectively kind of rode in and said ‘right here’s the economic package to go along with it’ and he made it happen.
Do you think if a different Prime Minister had been in Number 10 things would’ve been managed in a different way?
So his predecessors?
You mean what do I think each of his predecessors would’ve done in that situation?
Yes. If it had been David Cameron, Theresa May.
I mean it’s all a bit hypothetical. God only knows what each of them would do. But I would say if you took anybody at random from the top one per cent competent people in this country and presented them with the situation, they would’ve behaved differently to how the Prime Minister behaved.
So if we’re describing his behaviour at that point, was it driven by arrogance, complacency, or was it something more sinister?
There’s a great misunderstanding people have that because it nearly killed him therefore he must’ve taken it seriously. But in fact, after the first lockdown, his view was he was cross with me and others for what he regards as basically pushing him into the first lockdown. His argument after that was, literally quote, ‘I should’ve been the Mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open’, that’s what he said on many, many occasions. He didn’t think in July or September, thank goodness we did the first lockdown, it was obviously the right thing to do etc etc. His argument then was ‘we shouldn’t have done the first lockdown and I’m not going to make the same mistake again’.
So that does sound like arrogance.
I don’t know if arrogance is the right thing, it’s just as I said in the earlier session, the Prime Minister took the view in January/February that economic harm caused by action against Covid was going to be more damaging to the country than Covid.
And we could not persuade him that if you basically took the view of let it rip and not worry about Covid, you would get not just all the health disasters but you would also then get a huge economic disaster because if people are faced with not having any health system, which is what we would’ve been faced with in March if we went down Plan A, or what we would’ve been faced with if we hadn’t finally put the brakes on in October, then people are going to lock themselves down out of terror. And we could never persuade him of this argument. He also essentially thought that he’d been gamed on the numbers in the first lockdown.
Did you hear him say ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’ or ‘it’s only killing 80-year-olds’?
There’s been a few different versions of these stories knocking around. There was a version of it in the Sunday Times which was not accurate, but the version that the BBC reported was accurate.
And you heard that?
I heard that in the Prime Minister’s study. That was not in September though, that was immediately after he finally made the decision to do the lockdown on October 31.
You showed us a whiteboard picture and one of the phrases on it that I think has caused some concern is ‘who do we not save’. What was the answer to that?
Well that was asking the obvious question at that point. At that point it was too late to stop disaster on March 13 was my view and the people who I figured were our best view. So that comment on there was essentially already partly over the cliff, like who is not going to be saved in this situation, who’s most vulnerable, etc etc.
What was the final straw that prompted you to come give evidence such as you are today? Some would say for a government or Prime Minister adviser that discretion is important. But you’ve disclosed everything today so what has prompted that?
I think the scale of the disaster is so big that people need to understand how the government failed them when they needed it. People need to understand that now. Who knows what other kinds of problems will come along in the next few years that could easily have exactly the same consequences. Because as critical as I’ve been of the Prime Minister, in no way shape or form can you say this is just his fault, if you just shuffled him around or a couple of ministers or Hancock everything would suddenly work, it wouldn’t.
These failures are programmed by the wiring of the system. And if you have something this bad and you’ve got tens of tens of thousands of people who died who didn’t need to die and massive economic destruction the way that we’ve had it, that didn’t need to happen, if we’d sorted things out earlier, everyone in this country needs to face the reality of this. And secondly, it’s become clear over the last couple of months that contrary to when I spoke to the Prime Minister about it last year, in the summer, he has clearly changed his mind and is now desperate not to face up to this and not to learn the lessons. I think because of the disaster in the autumn.
So talking about not learning the lessons can I ask you just some quick yes no answers and then I’ll be done. So I appreciate that you did leave in November, but were you surprised by the government delays in putting India on the red list?
No not surprised at all. It was completely in character with Number 10.
And are you surprised by the confusion on the current travel arrangements with green, amber and red countries?
I’m afraid it’s déjà vu all over again.
Who is now advising the Prime Minister?
And are you surprised that people are being encouraged to travel this year?
I’m not on top of it enough to have a sensible view I’m afraid, in terms of whether or not people should be travelling.
And last year?
Well I think a lot of things that we did last summer, as I said and said at the time, I thought were big mistakes. Lots of people said to the Prime Minister last year ‘do not listen to the media screaming to you about get back to work’, because as soon as you get to September you’re going to be screaming back at everyone again, ‘work from home again’. And everyone is going to think that you’ve lost the plot, and the government’s lost the plot, and they’ll be right. But that was one of the many arguments that I lost on this whole thing.
Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
I can’t remember whether you said – were you opposed to Eat Out to Help Out?
I was opposed to the general strategy the Prime Minister set out. I think once the Prime Minister said ‘everyone get back to work, get the economy going’ and everything else, then things like that are logical. The problem is his fundamental decision about the strategy was wrong.
But in the particular, did you advise anyone against it?
I can’t really remember conversations to be honest about Eat Out to Help Out specifically.
It was a big initiative, wasn’t it?
To be honest in the grand scheme of things it didn’t seem like that at the time, no.
So you don’t recall having any conversation?
Oh no, I was definitely in meetings in which it was discussed, but at that point I basically lost the argument on the approach.
So because the strategy was not the one you wanted, you didn’t raise any objection to actions that were considered distant with the strategy?
On Eat Out to Help Out, I don’t remember to be honest the conversations that were had on it. Before that happened, that was a consequence of a strategic decision made by the Prime Minister, which was ‘we’ve killed the economy, we’ve got to get the economy back, Covid is in the past, there won’t be a second wave, get everything open’.
Me, the Director of Communications, the Cabinet Secretary, other people said ‘hang on a second, what about all the following objections to this plan’ – we lost that argument, the Prime Minister made a decision. Once that happens then a lot of other things naturally flow. Like for example students coming back in September and all that sort of thing, which clearly if you were taking a different view of it you would never have done.
So you didn’t oppose the Eat Out to Help Out because it was consistent with the strategy?
I wouldn’t say that, I honestly can’t even remember what I said about Eat Out to Help Out. I didn’t pay huge attention to Eat Out to Help Out.
Q – Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary
You’ve been very clear that the Prime Minister rejected the idea of a circuit breaker towards the end of September. Of course what he would say is that they did have that circuit breaker in Wales, but they still had to go into the November lockdown. So many people say that it was actually inevitable anyway – the seeds had already been sown by that stage.
I just want to go through some of the things that could also have contributed to the need for a second lockdown. Now you don’t recall opposing Eat Out to Help Out, which is something a lot of people have talked about. I think you just said then, correct me if I’m wrong, that you didn’t oppose students going back to university at the beginning of September. Is that right?
Yes I advised against that.
You advised against that? You did, okay.
I didn’t say that I was opposed or pro Eat Out to Help Out. I just thought it was part of a plan which on the grander scale was wrong, and I don’t remember if I even gave a view specifically on Eat Out to Help Out.
But you did, for example, advise against telling people to go back to work? You thought that was wrong?
And you did advise against students going back in September?
And, not sure about Eat Out to Help Out, can I ask you about the high number of infections that were circulating on NHS hospital wards, so NHS data now says that about 8,700 people died having picked up infections inside hospitals, and we were obviously very sorry to hear about your uncle earlier on. Did you advise that we needed to bring forward the weekly testing of NHS staff, which wasn’t actually introduced until November?
Yes. There were many, many meetings on testing NHS staff. One of the things that I spent a huge amount of time on was trying to get these LAMP and lateral flow tests going so that NHS staff could basically have a test a day, for everybody in the NHS if they wanted to. It was clear that that was technically possible, it was organisationally possible and it should be done, and I did all I could to try and accelerate that.
And who resisted that happening? Because it took a long time – we did care homes in July, I don’t think it actually got operational until September but it was promised in July, but it wasn’t even promised for the NHS until November.
I think just in general on LAMP and lateral flow, there was just this same kind of incredibly conservative attitude and a kind of ‘well if we just do PCR everyone knows where they are and no one’s going to criticise us’. As soon as you do something new, inside the Civil Service, if it works no one gets any credit and if it doesn’t work you get the blame.
So there’s this huge reverse ratchet all the time against this. It took huge effort from Number 10 to try and push this through, and that’s after we had the Prime Minister’s support, the Cabinet Secretary’s supportive, Hancock and personally supportive, and we had a whole bunch of great people involved.
To give you an example of how hard this was, after I spoke myself to some of the scientists involved with getting the mass testing going, and they described all of the problems and I spoke to the team in the Test and Trace, I sat down in the Cabinet room with the Cabinet Secretary and the head of commercial and the head of HR for the civil service and a bunch of the top officials. And the Cabinet Secretary and I said to all of them: ‘This is a war, this is a wartime measure, this could make all the difference between how this country survives, hundreds of billions of pounds before the vaccine comes into stream.
Any rules, forget. Procurement things, throw them away. HR rules in particular, throw them away, because there were huge problems with recruiting the team. So you can’t really have much more than the PM, the PM’s adviser and the Cabinet Secretary all saying that. Two weeks later all the people came back to us and said nothing’s changed. We had to do the whole thing again and the Cabinet Secretary had to threaten people with being fired.
So there was a huge general resistance to this thing because it seemed so new and risky, and you’ve got these PCR tests where the accuracy is very, very high, and then a lot of people couldn’t get their head around the stats of the mass tests.
The thing that’s puzzling about weekly testing of NHS staff is that there were repeated calls in this place, from lots and lots of different people to get on with it from the start of the summer on. And it wasn’t even announced as a plan until November.
So it wasn’t like anyone said ‘we want to do weekly testing of NHS staff’, it was actually not announced until November and then the promise was to try and get it done by the first week of December. So why did it take so long even to accept that that should be the plan, given that we now know so many people picked up infections in hospitals?
I’m not arguing with you about the announcement, I can’t remember when the announcements were made, but I was having meetings in April about testing NHS staff on as fast a pace as possible. I had meetings in July about getting mass tests out, and I had meetings literally almost every day of my government career until September 1 until the day I left on mass testing and this subject.
So you wanted to do it? That’s the point. It just wasn’t announced as an objective?
Number 10 was pushing it, the Test and Trace team that we built was pushing for it, that was definitely one of our core goals, yes.
Last one from me on this section – you said earlier that you should have resigned probably in the spring and definitely in September. You did actually end up resigning at the end of the year. Can you understand how to some people, it looks like you resigned after losing a power struggle in Number 10 but you didn’t resign over issues that cost thousands of lives, and how that makes people angry?
Well I mean there are so many crazy stories about what happened in Number 10 that are mostly untrue, so all I’d say to people is don’t believe what you read in the newspapers about things like that.
So your recognition had nothing to do with it, not being appointed to the position you wanted, things like that?
So my resignation was definitely connected to the fact that the Prime Minister’s girlfriend was trying to change a whole bunch of different appointments in Number 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs. In particular she was trying to overturn the outcome of an official process about hiring a particular job in a way that was not only completely unethical, but was also clearly illegal.
I thought the whole process about how the Prime Minister was behaving at that point was appalling, and all of that was definitely part of why I went. However, this, as I said to you, I had this conversation with him before my operation back in July, it was clear in July that our relations were very far from where they had been. And they took another terrible dive after the second lockdown in October, because the Prime Minister knew that I blamed him for the whole situation, and I did.
By October 31 our relations were essentially already finished. The fact that his girlfriend also wanted rid of me was relevant but not the heart of the problem. Part of the problem was, fundamentally, I regarded him as unfit for the job and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions and push other things through against his wishes.
He had the view that he was Prime Minister, and I should be doing what he wanted me to do, and that’s obviously not sustainable for very long. I only stayed because I was desperate to try and push through action to stop as many people dying as I could do. Once the second lockdown happened on the 31st then it was obvious I was going to be gone within days.
And remember I’d already said that I was going to on December 18 in July, so it was not really anything. The thing that I got wrong and the thing that I terribly regret now, is on Tuesday 22nd, after we’d done that theoretical meeting, set in the future by five or six weeks which I organised and he saw all of the data, at that point I was already going in 12 weeks anyway.
What I ought to have done is said to him then ‘I’m resigning in 48 hours, we can do this one way or the other way. If you announce that you’re going to have a lockdown and take serious action now, I will leave, go quietly, we’re all friends. If you don’t, I’ll call a press conference and say the Prime Minister is making a terrible decision that’s going to kill thousands of people’. I should have gambled on holding a gun to his head essentially. And who knows it that would’ve worked or not, but fundamentally it was kind of the only upside, given my role there was basically done at that point.
So I apologise for not doing that, I should’ve done, I was dissuaded from it because people basically thought ‘maybe you could help reverse this decision over the coming weeks’. It’s a constant problem. You stay because you think maybe you can change things.
But in retrospect now seeing how things played out, lots of things are quite difficult to figure out, hypothetically, but there’s no doubt in my mind now that I made a mistake and I should’ve gambled in that week.
Q – Paul Bristow, Tory MP
Mr Cummings, I listened carefully to your testimony around decision-making in September, but SAGE’s advice on September 21 had a shortlist of options, only one of which was a circuit breaker lockdown. Is it any wonder that the PM sought alternatives to lockdown given the weakness of that advice?
As you can see from March, often what’s written down in SAGE papers is not really very close to the conversations that are in the room. So with respect I would say that your picture of what was presented to the PM is not accurate. Patrick Vallance was very clear, Chris Whitty was very clear, the data was extremely clear, that unless you act thousands of people are going to die.
It says here, in its September advice, SAGE said a ‘more effective response may reduce the length of time for which some measures are required’. May isn’t will is it?
The word may does not mean the same as the word will, no. But that’s not what the conversation was in Number 10.
In your testimony and on social media, you talk about an able few many who, to quote you, are ‘now gone, or leaving or planning to leave’ and the rest who are all disastrously wrong or useless, then get the promotions. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between. Your world only really sees heroes and villains. Is it really that black and white?
No of course not, but it is a basic problem inside the system that lots of very able people get weeded out from top jobs, and lots of people who are not fit for them get promoted, that’s a core problem in the political parties and the civil service.
Do you accept that there are some people who may be brilliant, but who are also difficult and flawed and, in the end, are impossible to satisfy?
Of course, but if you’re trying to get a team at the top of government to deal with crises, you have to try and get the best talent that this country has to offer. And you’ve got to get different kinds of talent – people who can think about very hard problems in a quantitative way, people who can make decisions effectively and people who can build things operationally at scale. And you need teams that can bring these skills together and integrate them. And we didn’t have that.
I’m not putting myself in the category of good people who should be promoted at all. Quite the opposite. I regarded my own position there as like a weird quirk in history, and my goal in January was to recruit a whole bunch of people who are much smarter than me and much more able than me to deal with government problems, so I could make myself redundant, which I said publicly, which I believed.
On your earlier comment about not being focused on coronavirus until a relatively late stage, one journalist has posted a message from someone who was working in Number 10 at the time and, with apologies for the language, it reads ‘disingenuous little f***er, the reason he wasn’t paying attention was that his plan to derail Boris – ‘
Greg Clark, Tory MP and Chair of the Science and Technology Committee
Paul, I don’t want any repetition of that language, you can edit it.
Paul Bristow, Tory MP
Okay, ‘so the reason he wasn’t paying attention is that his plan to derail Boris … was undone by the reality of the situation, I’ve never seen such a squirming nest of contradiction embodied in a single individual.’ What’s your response to that?
I don’t quite understand the accusation I’m afraid. What is it about February that supposedly I did?
I guess it’s saying your focus wasn’t on Covid until the backend of February despite the fact the WHO had already determined that this was an emergency and you were distracted with other things. The accusation is that you were distracted by placing your own accolades in every post that was in power and that was undone by the reality of the situation. Quite frankly Mr Cummings you have to work with other people and I guess that’s the accusation, that you didn’t work well with others.
Well, I think I worked well with some people, I didn’t necessarily work well with others, different people have different kinds of temperaments. I think I would stress that lots of the things you read in the media about me are not correct. I would point out that on quite a few occasions I have built teams that have been quite successful, because I know how to build teams and I know how to manage them well. The media story is about all kinds of things that are about how relations were with civil servants and what not are 99 per cent nonsense. I would advise that you don’t listen to them.
Q – Taiwo Owatemi, Labour MP
Do you have any reasons to believe that the PM may have been distracted from leading the national response to the Covid pandemic because of his own personal financial interest?
I don’t know exactly what you mean, it’s certainly the case that in February he had a string, obviously as a matter of public record he was distracted by finalising his divorce, his girlfriend was pregnant, an engagement and his finances and all that sort of stuff. Certainly in February he had a very difficult time mid-February in his private life for sure.
Given the fact that the PM is currently writing a book, he has reportedly spent time seeking private donations to fund his own lifestyle, do you think that is a useful way for a PM to spend his time, given the fact that we were in a public health crisis?
Well obviously I think the PM’s focus should be on the PM’s job, and made clear before this meeting my views on what he was doing regarding other things in Number 10, but I don’t think today’s the day to go into that sort of stuff.
Do you think that senior medical figures, Prof Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance, working in the government were ever used during the evening press conference as political props to present greater plausibility to the government’s Covid message, even when the message wasn’t clear or ineffective?
I certainly believe that Matt Hancock used Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty as shields for himself, yes. He used the whole we’re following the science as a way of saying well if things go wrong we’ll blame the scientists and that’s not my fault. I saw him discuss that with the PM and I think it was one of the many appalling things that Hancock did.
And do you think that was an appropriate way to use the time of senior medical officers, given the fact that we were in a public health crisis?
In principle I think it was certainly a reasonable use of their time to give press conferences. I think that it was actually a good idea for us to do the press conferences in No 10 with the PM and the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, I think in principle that was the right thing to do. I was very strongly actually in favour of having the scientists and the medics just explain the reality of what was happening.
I think what was not right was the Secretary of State try to use them as a shield for himself. I think that was unethical and obviously wrong.
Moving onto the matter of ethics, as MPs we all have to sign a code of conduct to say that we’re going to be honest, we’re going to be transparent and we’re going to be accountable. So do you think that the PM and that other Cabinet members, I know you’ve already expressed your concerns about Matt Hancock, do you think that they were always transparent, honest and accountable to members of the public regarding the Covid pandemic?
I think inevitably it’s a mixed bag. I think that the Chancellor and Dominic Raab did brilliantly, I think Dominic Raab hasn’t got nearly enough credit as he should’ve done because he had to step into an extraordinary situation with the PM on his deathbed. Remember that when Raab took over there was a conversation in No 10 with the Cabinet Secretary and Director of Communications about pooling a Cabinet to try and find a replacement for the PM incase he died.
That’s how serious the situation was, and Dominic had to step into that environment in a completely, nobody had dealt with the situation that Raab faced literally since Churchill in World War Two. You had crucial elements of the State gone, PM on his deathbed, the Cabinet Secretary, blah blah blah. Raab did an outstanding job, the Chancellor did an outstanding job, I’ve made my views on the PM and Secretary of State clear.
So do you think the reason the PM didn’t sack the Secretary of State was because in doing so he himself has made very similar mistakes during this pandemic, so in doing so sacking the Secretary of State would have brought his role into disrepute. So do you think that’s the reason why the PM didn’t make such a decision?
It’s definitely the case that the PM was told that contrary to my view – I said sack him every week, almost every day – he was told though that he should keep him there because he’s the person you fire when the enquiry comes along. My counterargument was if you leave him there we’re going to have another set of disasters in the autumn, and that’s the critical thing. Forget the enquiry, god knows when that will happen. We’ve got to get rid of this guy now because every single week things are going disastrously wrong.
Correct up to 3.55pm