The Covid inquiry took a bizarre twist today as Dominic Cummings admitted the government should have listened to model Caprice calling for borders to be toughened.
The former No10 chief painted a grim picture of complacency about the virus in Whitehall, and argued that after it arrived in the UK there was a ‘fatalistic’ view that there was no point trying to stop the spread.
Giving evidence to the official inquiry, Mr Cummings said the initial advice had been that lockdown was both ‘impossible’ and ‘mad’, because it would just result in a worse second wave.
WhatsApps displayed at the hearing – many of them expletive-laden – showed the maverick aide warned Boris Johnson on March 12, 2020 that acting too slowly could turn the NHS into a ‘zombie apocalypse film’.
But he told the inquiry that ideally there would have been a drastic tightening of travel as soon as the virus was discovered, along with the ramping up of mass testing. That would have had a ‘much better outcome’, without the need for blanket restrictions.
Mr Cummings suggested part of the reason such measures were not pursued was because it was seen as ‘racist’ to close borders – pointing to an example where model Caprice Bourret asked on TV why it was not being done and was derided as an ‘idiot’.
Once a close ally, Mr Cummings is now a sworn enemy of Mr Johnson, and slammed his ‘exhausting’ inability to stick to decisions, claiming that ‘pretty much everybody’ referred to Mr Johnson as ‘the trolley’.
In other key elements among the evidence today:
- Mr Cummings said it was ‘appalling’ that the government did not have more focus on shielding vulnerable groups;
- He said the Cobra emergency committee was designed to respond to ‘relatively small’ situations such as flooding or terror attack, whereas Covid ‘was on the scale of a war’;
- Science adviser Patrick Vallance wrote in his diaries in August 2020 that Mr Johnson was ‘obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going’.
Dominic Cummings slated ministers as ‘c***s’ and ‘morons’ in foul-mouthed messages shown as he gave evidence to the Covid inquiry
Caprice championed face masks and travel restrictions when she appeared on the Jeremy Vine show on March 16 2020 (pictured)
Former Downing Street spin chief Lee Cain today admitted the government had no ‘clarity’ or ‘plan’ on how to deal with Covid as he gave evidence to the official inquiry
Mr Johnson, pictured out running in Oxfordshire this morning, has yet to give his own account to the inquiry
Patrick Vallance wrote in his notebook that ministers wanted to ‘let the old people get it’
The inquiry was shown messages between Mr Cain and Mr Cummings saying they were ‘exhausted’ with the PM
The inquiry has been shown extraordinary WhatsApp messages from Cabinet Secretary Simon Case in which he slated Boris Johnson for ‘changing the calls on the big plays every day’
Mr Case also sent messages complaining that the government looked like a ‘terrible, tragic joke’
An exchange with Mr Cummings from August 2020 saw Mr Case level more criticism at Mr Johnson
Mr Johnson has yet to give his own account to the inquiry.
Mr Cummings was Mr Johnson’s top political aide in Downing Street from July 2019, having previously led Vote Leave in the Brexit referendum, and was credited with masterminding the Tories‘ election triumph.
He was asked to leave government by Mr Johnson in November 2020, after seemingly losing a bitter power struggle. Mr Cain, another Vote Leave veteran, quit a day before.
The former No10 chief ranted at the then-PM in a series of missives as their relationship disintegrated, warning that the government was being consumed by ‘mayhem’.
He also slated ministers as ‘f***pigs’, ‘c***s’ and ‘morons’ in foul-mouthed messages shown as Mr Cummings gave evidence to the Covid inquiry – with counsel Hugo Keith KC branding his language ‘revolting’.
Earlier, former Downing Street spin chief Lee Cain told the government had no ‘clarity’ or ‘plan’ on how to deal with Covid.
Mr Cain defended the low priority given to the virus in No10 as it emerged in January and early February, saying that the Department of Health was confident preparations were in place.
But he conceded that by the end of February the situation was escalating and there was ‘no clarity of purpose’. ‘There was a lack of clarity about what we should be doing,’ Mr Cain said.
Calling for a reshuffle, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser said in a WhatsApp message in August 2020: ‘At the moment the bubble thinks youve taken your eye off ball, you’re happy to have useless f***pigs in charge, and they think that a vast amount of the chaotic news on the front pages is coming from no10 when in fact it’s coming from the Cabinet who are feral – if you maintain your approach of last few months, your authority will be severely weakened and you will lose good people cos (sic) they dont want to be part of something that looks like mayhem.’
Mr Cummings added: ‘I also must stress I think leaving Hancock in post is a big mistake – he is a proven liar who nobody believes or shd (sic) believe on anything, and we face going into autumn crisis with the c*** in charge of NHS still.’
Mr Keith said ‘we’re going to have to coarsen our language somewhat’, as he read out some of the terms used by Mr Cummings.
Asked by Mr Keith whether he contributed to a lack of effectiveness on the part of ministers, Mr Cummings replied: ‘No, I think I was reflecting a widespread view amongst competent people at the centre of power at the time about the calibre of a lot of senior people who were dealing with this crisis extremely badly.’
He conceded his language was ‘appalling’ and apologised, but said his ‘judgment of a lot of senior people was widespread’.
Mr Cummings said strict border controls on travel from China and the rapid expansion of testing as soon as the virus was identified could have had a ‘much better’ outcome than the national lockdown.
He said there was a ‘fatalistic’ approach within government which did not envisage attempting to create new systems to control the spread of coronavirus.
‘My view is that what ought to have happened is that as soon as the first reports came at the end of December, on roughly New Year’s Eve 2019, we should have immediately closed down flights to China, we should immediately have had a very, very hardcore system at the airports and borders and there should have been a whole massive testing infrastructure,’ he said.
That meant both scaling up the test and trace system but also finding the industrial capacity system to manufacture tens of millions of rapid tests.
The combination of ‘this country, for the first time ever, actually controlling its borders and taking it seriously’ with test and trace, rapid testing capacity, along with ‘human challenge’ vaccine trials, would have been a ‘much better approach’.
It would have been better ‘not just in terms of deaths, but also in terms of us being able to keep open the economy to a massively greater extent than we were able to’.
Mr Cummings agreed that without a scaled-up test and trace system, shutting the borders would not have sufficed in combating the spread of coronavirus.
But he said: ‘It’s half of the nub of the issue, but the other half of the nub is that if you regard the whole thing in a fatalistic way anyway – which DH (the Department of Health), the Cabinet Office and Sage did at the beginning – and you think that there is no effective alternative to herd immunity.
‘If you say that, at an overall conceptual level, there’s either A: shape a curve towards herd immunity, or B: try to build your way out of the problem, the entire system in January, February, early March thought that the only plausible approach to this was to shape the curve of herd immunity.
‘No one thought it was really practical to build our way out of the problem.
‘The fundamental U-turn that we shifted to, was to try and build our way out of it instead of fatalistically accepting it.’
He pointed to the episode when Caprice said on TV ‘why aren’t we closing the borders?’ – saying ‘a lot of public health experts mocked her as if she was an idiot’.
‘That was the prevailing conventional wisdom from the public health system and the dismissal of Caprice was reflected in Number 10 by the public health system,’ he said.
‘Of course, if you’re going for a single wave herd immunity by September… then faffing around at the borders wasn’t regarded as relevant or coherent with such a strategy.’
Extraordinarily, it was revealed that Mr Cummings blocked Mr Johnson on WhatsApp in November 2020 after the then-PM pleaded with him to end the ‘totally disgusting orgy of narcissism’ and briefing that was engulfing the government.
And the inquiry was shown a message of Mr Johnson raging that Mr Cummings was a ‘total and utter liar’ over his Barnard Castle trip.
In messages shared with the Covid inquiry, dated July 19 2021, Mr Johnson said: ‘Cummings a total and utter liar. He never told me he had gone to Durham during lockdown.
‘I only discovered when the stories started to come out about Barnard castle etc. I believed Mary Wakefield when she wrote a piece in spec giving impression they had been in London the whole time.
‘He later claimed that he had told me but that my brain was so fogged by Covid that I didn’t register.
‘It’s not true, I would have noted it.
‘He never told me. I then tried my very best to defend him.’
Dominic Cummings, former adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves Dorland House after giving evidence to the COVID Inquiry in London, United Kingdom on October 31, 2023
The inquiry has been set up to examine the UK’s response to and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic with Module 2 focused on core political and administrative decision-making by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet between early January 2020 and February 2022
Mr Cummings said that the handling by Downing Street of the fallout from his trip to Barnard Castle was an ‘absolute car crash’ and ‘did cause a lot of people pain’.
He said: ‘It was certainly a disaster, the whole handling of the situation. But there were other factors involved with it all as well – testing and PPE and many other things were all going haywire at the time.’
He said it was ‘completely reasonable’ for security reasons to move his family out of his house, but on the Barnard Castle revelations he said the way it was ‘handled it was an absolute car crash and disaster and did cause a lot of people pain’.
But he added: ‘In terms of my actual actions in going north and then coming back down I acted entirely reasonably and legally and did not break any rules.’
Earlier, Mr Cain told the inquiry that in January and into early February other things like Brexit, 5G and a Cabinet reshuffle were a focus in Downing Street.
Mr Cain noted Mr Johnson had also taken a two-week holiday in that period.
Giving evidence, he said: ‘In defence of the Prime Minister – and there were certainly things that the Prime Minister got wrong – but I think in this early stage, he is receiving assurances that, you know, everything actually is being well prepared and we are in a good situation to handle things and nobody is sort of setting up the warning flares to him, or to the core team.
‘So, you know, his behaviour at this point isn’t, you know, irrational to focus on some of the other issues that, you know, we shouldn’t forget were large-scale significant issues at the time.’
In his written statement he noted that ‘collectively, we failed to anticipate the scale and speed of the oncoming pandemic and lost crucial weeks when we could have been improving our resilience and preparedness.’
Mr Cain said indecision was a ‘theme’ inside Downing Street during the pandemic and could be ‘worse than the wrong decision’.
‘Indecision can sometimes be worse than the wrong decision in certain circumstances. And I think indecision probably was a theme of Covid that people did struggle with inside Number 10,’ he said.
However, the long-term aide also defended the former PM’s struggle to make a decision over the first Covid lockdown, saying in a statement it was ‘to some degree understandable’ that he ‘would occasionally oscillate’ between locking down the country and other potential policy options.
Mr Cain told the inquiry: ‘I would say that it’s pretty easy for advisers like myself to say the prime minister should have done X, the prime minister should have done Y.
‘I do think that this was probably one of the biggest peacetime decisions in recent years the prime minister’s had to undertake, and it clearly weighed incredibly heavy on him. And I think it’s him and him alone who has to take that decision, so it is understandable that he wrestled with it.’
He added that Mr Johnson’s indecision over the second lockdown was ‘slightly more difficult to defend’.
The inquiry was shown messages that Mr Cummings sent to Mr Cain on March 19 2020.
‘Rishi saying bond markets may fund our debt etc. He’s back to Jaws mode w**k,’ Mr Cummings wrote.
‘I’ve literally said same thing 10 f****** times and he still won’t absorb it.
‘I’m exhausted just talking to him and stopping the trolley.
‘I’ve had to sit here for two hours just to stop him saying stupid sh**.’
Mr Cain replied: ‘I’m exhausted with him.’
After a later message highlighted a ‘slightly confusing message’ from Mr Johnson at the start of a press conference, Mr Cummings said: ‘What did I say – it’s only a matter of time before his babbling exposes fact he doesn’t know what to say.’
Asked what Mr Cummings had meant by ‘Jaws mode’, Mr Cain replied: ‘The PM at the time would refer to the mayor of Jaws from the film who wanted to keep the beaches open.
‘I think he had a routine from previous in his career where he would use that as a joke from one of his after-dinner speeches.
‘The mayor was right all along to keep the beaches open because it would have been a long-term harm to the community – so it’s a sort of sub-reference to that.’
Mr Cain said he was ‘frustrated’ by the PM saying that the government could turn the tide on Covid in 12 weeks.
‘We were looking at a year where we were going to have to do harsh measures… we all knew it was a long-term challenge,’ he said.
And he expressed the view that Covid had been the ‘wrong crisis for this PM’s skill set’.
‘I think what will probably be clear in Covid, it was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,’ he said.
‘Which is different I think from not potentially being up for the job of prime minister.’
‘He is somebody who would often delay making decisions… sometimes in politics that can be a great strength,’ he said.
‘If you look at something like Covid you need quick decisions.’
Meanwhile, other evidence seen at the inquiry today included science adviser Patrick Vallance saying he believed the coronavirus pandemic was ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’.
Sir Patrick wrote in his diaries that the then-prime minister indicated he agreed with Conservatives that the ‘whole thing is pathetic’.
The adviser said there were ‘quite a bonkers set of exchanges’ featuring Mr Johnson.
He wrote in August 2020 that Mr Johnson was ‘obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going’.
‘Quite bonkers set of exchanges,’ he said, referring to the ‘PM WhatsApp group’.
Then, in December 2020, Sir Patrick wrote that Mr Johnson said he believed he had been ‘acting early’ and that the ‘public are with him (but his party is not)’.
‘He says his party ‘thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them. A lot of moderate people think it is a bit too much’. Wants to rely on polling. Then he says ‘We should move things to Tier 3 now’.’
The inquiry heard yesterday that the Government became highly ‘dysfunctional’ during the pandemic.
WhatsApp messages shown to witnesses hinted at the turmoil at the heart of power.
A message sent by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case to Mr Cummings said Mr Johnson kept changing stance, complaining that he ‘cannot lead and we cannot support him in leading with this approach’.
Mr Case’s message added: ‘A weak team (as we have got – Hancock, Williamson, Dido (Harding, former chairman of NHS Improvement and now a Tory peer)… definitely cannot succeed in these circs [sic]. IT HAS TO STOP! Decide and set direction, deliver, explain.
‘[Government] isn’t actually that hard but this guy is really making it impossible.’
Mr Case is currently on sick leave for an undisclosed medical condition, but is expected to give evidence at some stage.
Mr Cummings was said to wield phenomenal influence, with one adviser claiming he was ‘the most empowered chief of staff’ Downing Street had seen.
Martin Reynolds, the ex-prime minister’s former principal private secretary, said Mr Cummings ‘was the person whose writ ruled, who was able to drive things through the machine in the way I suspect few other chiefs of staff have done’. Mr Cummings, who has repeatedly sought to undermine Mr Johnson since the pair’s working relationship ended in acrimony in November 2020, is due to give evidence today.
Mr Case is currently on sick leave for an undisclosed medical condition, but is expected to give evidence at some stage
Extracts from Patrick Vallance’s notebooks show he complained about being pushed to do a press conference that would be ‘political’, and slated a ‘rambling opening to Cabinet’ by Mr Johnson
Mr Reynolds admitted that coronavirus plans were ‘inadequate to deal with the nature of the crisis we were confronted with’.
He said Mr Johnson ‘blew hot and cold’ on some Covid decision-making in the early days of the pandemic.
Mr Reynolds was dubbed ‘Party Marty’ after he organised a notorious ‘bring your own booze’ Downing Street garden party – something he apologised for at the end of his evidence yesterday. He told the inquiry: ‘I would like to say how sorry I am for my part in those events.’
But he said coverage of that party did not undermine public confidence in the Government at the time, because it did not emerge until months later.
Mr Johnson has faced repeated claims he failed to properly consider the impact of Covid but Mr Reynolds said he could not remember his former boss dismissing it as not a ‘big deal’.
He said: ‘He was concerned that if we reacted in a certain way we could actually generate a sense of panic and concern which would be counterproductive.’
Mr Reynolds quit No 10 in February 2022 as part of a clear-out of senior aides in the wake of the Partygate scandal.
The Covid inquiry is being chaired by Baroness Hallett (pictured at the hearing yesterday)