British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was disastrously slow to impose a lockdown in 2020 because he thought COVID-19 was a scare story and even considered getting injected with coronavirus on live television to show it was benign, his former chief adviser said.
Johnson subsequently caught COVID-19 early in the pandemic and was so ill that he was moved to intensive care at a London hospital where he received liters of oxygen. He later said plans had been prepared to announce his death.
In a blistering attack on the British state, Dominic Cummings told lawmakers that the government was completely unprepared for the worst public health crisis in decades and that ministers, including the prime minister, were on holiday in February 2020, some skiing.
Such was Johnson’s skepticism about COVID-19, he even told officials he was considering getting the government’s chief medical advisor to inject him with the novel coronavirus to show the public it was not a big threat, Cummings said.
“The prime minister regarded this as just a scare story,” Cummings said, adding the view of officials was Johnson’s attitude was “don’t worry about it and I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus.”
“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” Cummings told lawmakers, adding that it was “crackers” that someone such as Johnson got to be prime minister.
Cummings cast the state as woefully disorganized, dominated by “groupthink” and run by ministers such as Health Secretary Matt Hancock who, he said, should be sacked for lying to the public and the government.
The health ministry declined to comment. With almost 128,000 deaths, the United Kingdom has the world’s fifth worst official COVID-19 toll.
Though Cummings’s attacks have so far failed to dent the prime minister’s popularity, his testimony is likely to form the broad lines of scrutiny of a public inquiry next year into the COVID-19 response.
Asked about Cummings’s critique at a weekly question-and-answer session in parliament, Johnson said nobody could credibly accuse him or his government of complacency.
“We have worked flat out to minimize loss of life,” said Johnson. He did not directly address many of Cummings’s claims.
Asked if Britain’s top civil servant had disclosed he had lost faith in Hancock’s honesty, Johnson said: “The answer to that is no…and I’m afraid I haven’t had the benefit of seeing the evidence that he’s (Cummings) bringing to the house.”
Cummings, the strategist behind the 2016 Brexit campaign and Johnson’s landslide election win in 2019, left Downing Street, carrying his personal belongings in a box, in late 2020 after falling out with Johnson.
His evidence before lawmakers gave an alarming insight into the heart of the British government as it grappled with the onset of what would become the most devastating public health crisis in a century.
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The West, Cummings said, failed during the crisis and British officials were resistant to accepting that they should follow the example of Asian powers in locking down the country.
“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,” Cummings said.
He related meetings in early 2020 when it started to dawn on some officials that Johnson’s resistance to a lockdown was a deadly mistake. Cummings said there was no COVID plan and certainly no plan for a lockdown.
“I’ve come through here to the Prime Minister’s Office to tell you, quote, I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is headed for disaster. I think we’re going to kill 1000s of people,” Cummings quoted Helen MacNamara, deputy cabinet secretary, as saying.
Reuters has reported how Britain was slow to spot the infections arriving, was late with a lockdown and it continued to discharge infected elderly hospital patients into care homes.
There was no data system to deal with COVID, no way to understand its spread and there was “not even a plan to bury all the bodies,” Cummings said.
Johnson has admitted that mistakes were made and that lessons need to be learned, but his ministers say they were working at pace in the biggest public health crisis in a century.
“I take full responsibility for everything that has happened,” Johnson told lawmakers on Wednesday. “As I’ve said before … I am truly sorry for the suffering that the people of this country have experienced.”
He has pointed to Britain’s vaccination program as a success that will allow the economy to rebound before its peers.
Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” also said he was sorry for being too slow to hit the emergency button.
“I failed and I apologize,” he said, adding that at one point, he pointed to images of Italy on the television in an attempt to convince Johnson that a lockdown was essential.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper and Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Michael Holden and Toby Chopra)
© 2021 Reuters