Ex-Johnson aide says UK government failed public over COVID


Dominic Cummings, the volatile advisor who until late last year was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most powerful and trusted aide, arrives to attend a select committee hearing at Portcullis House in London, Wednesday, May 26, 2021. In recent days, Cummings has directed a torrent of criticism at Johnson’s Conservative government in an ever-lengthening string of Twitter posts. On Wednesday, he plans to make the claims in person, testifying on live television to lawmakers investigating Britain’s handling of COVID-19. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

LONDON (AP) — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief aide said Wednesday that the government “failed” the British people and “fell disastrously short” in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Dominic Cummings made a blistering attack on the government he once served, telling lawmakers investigating Britain’s pandemic response that ministers and officials went on vacation as the virus swept toward the U.K. in in early 2020 and describing scenes of chaos in government as “like an out of-control movie.”

He said the government “was not operating on a war footing on this in February in any way, shape or form. Lots of people were literally skiing.”

Cummings said Johnson initially regarded the pandemic as “just a scare story. He described it as the new swine flu,”

“The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me, disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this,” Cummings said.

“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” he said, adding that people “died unnecessarily” as a result.

The U.K. has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe. Lockdowns shut down most of the economy, and the country experienced one of the world’s deepest recessions

A mass vaccination campaign that started in December has brought infections and fatalities down sharply, but the government acknowledges it will have to answer serious questions about its handling of the virus at a future public inquiry.

Cummings’ testimony to Parliament’s science and health committees gave a taste of what might come out. Parliamentary committee sessions are often dry affairs, but Cummings’ was broadcast live on television.

He delivered excoriating allegations of bad decisions and false assumptions within government in early 2020, saying “the whole thing just seemed like an out-of-control movie.”

It was “like a scene from ‘Independence Day’ with Jeff Goldblum saying ‘The aliens are here and your whole plan is broken,’” Cummings said.

Cummings is a self-styled political disruptor who has long expressed contempt for the civil service, many politicians and much of the media. One of the architects of the successful campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, Cummings was appointed a top adviser when Johnson became prime minister in 2019.

Cummings was thrust from the shadows into the spotlight in May 2020, when newspapers revealed he had driven 250 miles (400 kilometers) across the country after contracting COVID-19, despite a nationwide stay-at-home order. His defense — that he was seeking childcare help from relatives in case he got sick — rang hollow to many Britons who had made sacrifices and endured isolation to follow the rules.

Johnson resisted calls to fire Cummings for flouting rules the government had imposed on the rest of the country. He left his job in November amid a power struggle inside the prime minister’s office.

In recent days, Cummings has used Twitter to direct a torrent of criticism at his former employer, accusing Johnson of overseeing a chaotic government whose failure to act quickly against the coronavirus caused thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Cummings accuses the government of sticking with a policy of “herd immunity” — allowing the virus to spread through the population while protecting the most vulnerable — until it was too late to prevent draconian lockdowns and many deaths.

He said the government believed — wrongly, it turned out — that the British public would never accept strict lockdown measures, and that locking down would simply lead to a later, steeper peak in deaths.

The government denies that “herd immunity” was ever its policy, and critics accuse Cummings of glossing over the fact that he was one of the most powerful people in the government when key decisions were being made.

“I’ll leave others to determine how reliable a witness to all this he is,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said. “He was there at the time — what his motives would be I will leave to others.”

Cummings said he began “ringing alarm bells” in early March 2020, and apologized for not doing more to change the government’s strategy.

“I’m terribly sorry that I didn’t do it earlier,” he said.

He reflected that “it was completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position.”


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