Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, has been giving evidence to MPs about lessons from the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of his claims, checked against facts where possible but also put into context where they are impossible to prove one way or the other.
Claim: Downing Street’s initial Covid plan involved herd immunity
Cummings said: “The whole logic of all the discussions in January and February and early March” inside No 10 was the assumption that containment would not work, and there was a choice between either a peak of infections in the spring, or suppression followed by a worse peak in the winter, and that the only containment should be shielding clinically vulnerable people during the wave, and trying to flatten the peak.
At the end of the wave of infections, enough people would have antibodies to create effective herd immunity, so the plan went, Cummings said. This was seen as an “inevitability” rather than a desired outcome, he argued.
A lot of the differences between Cummings and No 10 over herd immunity come down to the definition of what the plan was. Downing Street rejects that a mass wave of infections followed by antibody-based herd immunity was seen as a desired outcome. But Cummings argued it was just viewed as the better of two very bad options – either a peak in spring, or a worse one in winter.
There is plenty of evidence that senior officials did believe this. For example, on 13 March 2020 Sir Patrick Vallance, England’s chief scientific adviser, told the BBC the government wanted to avoid everybody “getting it in a short period of time so we swamp and overwhelm NHS services”.
Vallance added: “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.”
Claim: World Health Organization and Public Health England failed to fully raise alarm bells in January
“When it started in January I did think … oh my God, is this it? However at the time the PHE here and the WHO, and the CDC (the US Centers for Disease Control), generally speaking organisations across the western world, were not kind of ringing alarm bells about it then.” He contrasted this with, for example, Taiwan and other places in east Asia.
Verdict: Largely true
Taiwan and other places have managed the pandemic much better than the UK, and acted much earlier.
It was not until 22 January that the WHO’s mission to China said that data “suggests human to human transmission is taking place in Wuhan”. Eight days later, WHO advised countries to be “prepared for containment, including active surveillance”.
Claim: There was not an emergency fast-track process to deal with procurement
On the day Johnson tested positive – 27 March 2019 – Cummings says he and others were told “at the cabinet table” that ventilators were being turned down because the price had been marked up.
Verdict: To a large extent
A National Audit Office (NAO) report into “value for money” states that on 18 March 2020, the Cabinet Office issued guidance stating public bodies were permitted to procure goods, services and works “with extreme urgency” under 2015 regulations.
But another NAO report into procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) found that government’s structures were overwhelmed in March 2020.
“Once government recognised the gravity of the situation it created a parallel supply chain to buy and distribute PPE,” the NAO found, “but it took a long time for it to receive the large volumes of PPE ordered, particularly from the new suppliers, which created significant risks.”
Claim: He “cut off” contacts with journalists and “spoke to the media close to zero” in 2020
“I was working roughly 100-hour weeks. At that time, less than an hour a week, less than 1%, much less than 1% was spent talking to the media,” said Cummings.
However, he then appeared to catch up on himself, adding that he “did occasionally talk to people” but “the main person during the whole of 2020” he spoke to was the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.
Verdict: Hard to prove, but smells fishy
Few would take issue with Cummings’ point that the BBC has “a special place in the country, especially during a crisis.”
But eyebrows will be raised across Whitehall, Fleet Street and beyond at his claims that a man who was regarded as a prodigious leaker during his time in government suddenly went cold turkey on long-term contacts.
Claim: He accepted the MPs’ invitation “to set out the truth of what happened, not to settle scores”
Cummings opened up his appearance with an apology for his own failings to the families of all of those who died during the pandemic. Appearing to share the blame with others, he added: “The truth is that senior ministers, advisers like me, fell disastrously short. When the public need us most we failed.”
Verdict: Doesn’t quite hold water
Cummings had already been teeing up his appearance with damaging tweets. After his initial mea culpa – voice almost cracking – what followed during his time in front of MPs on Wednesday was a lacerating attack on the prime minister, senior civil servants and, in particular, the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
In characteristic fashion, workers in the NHS and wider civil service were described as “lions led by donkeys” while particularly personal barbs were aimed at Johnson, making the point twice in 20 minutes that he had gone on holiday as the pandemic was taking off in February.