Boris Johnson’s Former Top Aide Tells of Inept, Chaotic Covid Policy

LONDON — He recommended that a health care provider inject him with the coronavirus dwell on tv to minimize the hazards to a nervous public. He modeled himself after the small-town mayor within the film “Jaws,” who ignored warnings to shut the seashores though there was a marauding shark offshore. As the pandemic closed in on Britain, he was distracted by an unflattering story about his fiancée and her canine.

That was the portrait of Prime Minister Boris Johnson painted by his disaffected former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, in parliamentary testimony on Wednesday. While Mr. Johnson flatly rejected a number of of the assertions in his personal look in Parliament on Wednesday, they nonetheless landed with a thud in a rustic nonetheless struggling to know how the early days of the pandemic had been botched so badly.

“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” mentioned Mr. Cummings, the political strategist who masterminded Britain’s marketing campaign to depart the European Union and engineered Mr. Johnson’s rise to energy earlier than falling out bitterly together with his boss and rising as a self-styled whistle-blower.

In greater than seven hours of testimony that veered from the clinically technical to the ripely private, Mr. Cummings described a authorities paralyzed by chaos, confusion and incompetence, which he mentioned crippled Britain’s dealing with of the pandemic and contributed to tens of hundreds of unnecessary deaths.

Mr. Cummings was unsparing in his criticism of his outdated boss, in parliamentary testimony on Wednesday, describing a authorities paralyzed by chaos, confusion and incompetence.Credit…Parliamentary Recording Unit

It was a riveting tableau, one with few precedents in British politics: an unelected aide who had been arguably the nation’s second-most highly effective man, providing an unfiltered have a look at the internal workings of the British authorities because it confronted the best nationwide emergency since World War II.

Until Mr. Johnson fired him final November, Mr. Cummings was on the coronary heart of 10 Downing Street, using herd on a paperwork he considered as balky and advising a chief minister he described as so erratic that he was like a buying cart “smashing from one side of the aisle to the other.”

Mr. Johnson, he mentioned, initially dismissed the pandemic as a “scare story,” likening it to the swine flu. He was suggested by a well being secretary, Matt Hancock, whom Mr. Cummings accused of mendacity repeatedly, being unworthy of the well being care staff he directed and presiding over the lethal switch of aged sufferers from hospitals to nursing houses, many of them carrying the virus.

“The problem in this crisis was very much lions led by donkeys, over and over again,” mentioned Mr. Cummings, who confronted off in opposition to lawmakers in his signature matted type, with out jacket or tie, his white shirt rumpled, sleeves rolled up.

Mr. Cummings, 49, didn’t let himself off the hook. He admitted he had not been open concerning the causes for a much-criticized highway journey he made together with his household that breached lockdown guidelines, saying he had fled London as a result of of threats in opposition to his household. And he apologized for his failure to behave sooner when he realized that Britain’s delay in imposing a lockdown final March was courting catastrophe.

“It’s true that I hit the panic button and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan,” Mr. Cummings mentioned. “I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting.”

Mr. Cummings after giving testimony earlier than Parliament on Wednesday.Credit…Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA, by way of Shutterstock

It was an uncharacteristic admission from a person recognized for his self-confidence. And it was not the one such concession in an look that appeared calculated to melt Mr. Cummings’ picture as an all-knowing Svengali, whose ambition was nothing lower than to revolutionize Britain’s hallowed civil service.

Mr. Cummings mentioned he was not certified to have held such a robust place. He mentioned he was not fluent sufficient in math and science to interact constructively with prime scientists. And he mentioned that he misplaced each main debate over reforming the paperwork. By September, he mentioned, when Mr. Johnson was resisting a second lockdown, he ought to have threatened to stop to drive his hand.

“If I had acted earlier,” Mr. Cummings mentioned, “then lots of people might still be alive.”

But this was additionally an train in score-settling, and his scathing critiques of Mr. Johnson and different officers could linger longer than his makes an attempt to refurbish his personal picture. Mr. Cummings mentioned there was one thing unsuitable with a political system that produced Mr. Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the previous chief of the Labour Party, as the 2 contenders for prime minister within the 2019 election.

He was much more vitriolic about Mr. Hancock, who he mentioned ought to have been fired for 15 to 20 causes, from his dishonesty concerning the provision of protecting tools to derailing a nationwide test-and-trace program so he might meet a political goal of testing 100,000 folks a day. Mr. Cummings mentioned he informed Mr. Johnson to dismiss Mr. Hancock, as did the then-cabinet secretary, Mark Sedwill.

Among probably the most damning failures, he mentioned, was the choice to maneuver sufferers from hospitals to nursing houses with out testing them.

“Hancock told us that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes, what the hell happened?” he mentioned. “Quite the opposite of putting a shield round them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes.”

A spokesman for Downing Street mentioned on Wednesday that Mr. Johnson didn’t consider Mr. Hancock had lied to him.

Mr. Cummings mentioned that  Britain’s well being secretary, Matt Hancock, ought to have been fired for 15 to 20 causes.Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press

There had been glimpses of Mr. Cummings’ penchant for absorbing info. He spoke at size concerning the virtues of the response of East Asian international locations, with their emphasis on testing, tracing and journey bans. To that extent, mentioned public well being consultants, it was a helpful train in studying classes for future outbreaks.

“It didn’t reveal anything new, but instead validated what most experts suspected has occurred in No. 10,” mentioned Devi Sridhar, head of the worldwide public well being program on the University of Edinburgh. “A complete systems failure driven by a prime minister who didn’t value the lives of his citizens.”

Mr. Cummings described Mr. Johnson’s Downing Street as a office riven by chaos and preoccupied with trivia. He recalled a very fraught day — March 12, 2020 — when he and different officers realized that the preliminary technique of permitting the virus to tear via the inhabitants was going to result in a crushing burden on hospitals and doubtlessly greater than 250,000 deaths.

As officers had been prepping for a day of disaster conferences, he mentioned, the Trump administration requested for British assist in a bombing operation in opposition to Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which necessitated a parallel set of nationwide safety conferences. On prime of that, Mr. Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, was agitating for Downing Street to reply to a newspaper report about her and her canine.

Mr. Johnson and his fiancée Carrie Symonds in May. While accusing her of interfering in employees appointments, Mr. Cummings mentioned his actual breach was with the prime minister.Credit…Matt Dunham/Associated Press

The chaos, Mr. Cummings mentioned, was like “a scene from ‘Independence Day,’ with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken.” Mr. Johnson’s most well-liked film reference was “Jaws,” he mentioned, as a result of he noticed it as an analogy to his reluctance to impose lockdowns. Even after he survived a near-death expertise with Covid, Mr. Cummings mentioned, Mr. Johnson remained a skeptic.

Mr. Cummings didn’t handle one tantalizing query: whether or not Mr. Johnson had skipped Covid conferences to work on a long-delayed e book about Shakespeare.

While Mr. Cummings accused Ms. Symonds of interfering with employees appointments in Downing Street, he mentioned the rationale for his final departure in November was a breach not together with her however with Mr. Johnson.

At its coronary heart, Mr. Cummings’ testimony was about his poisoned relationship together with his former boss. Relations between the 2 had deteriorated by July, he mentioned, however “took a terrible dive after the lockdown in October.” By this level, Mr. Cummings mentioned he regarded the prime minister “as unfit for the job” and was making an attempt to create a construction round him to restrict poor decision-making.

Mr. Cummings additionally confirmed that he had heard Mr. Johnson say he would relatively see “bodies pile high” than take the nation into a 3rd lockdown — feedback reported by the BBC however denied by Downing Street.

Asked if Mr. Johnson was the precise individual to information the nation via the pandemic, Mr. Cummings responded merely: “No.”