Dominic Cummings has given an hour-long interview to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, due to be shown tonight on BBC2 at 7pm, in which he provides further evidence that Boris is a stone cold lockdown sceptic. As a bug-eyed lockdown zealot, he thinks this is damning stuff, but to people on our side of the aisle it makes the Prime Minister more sympathetic. MailOnline has more.
In his first broadcast interview, with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, the hostile former chief adviser to Mr Johnson accused his one-time boss of putting “his own political interests ahead of people’s lives”.
He also revealed that the Prime Minister also wanted to carry on meeting the Queen in person while Downing Street was rife with Covid, eventually backing down when it was pointed out he could kill her.
Mr Cummings has repeatedly accused the Prime Minister of being too slow in imposing the second lockdown, which came into force on November 5th.
The political adviser, who left Downing Street during a bitter row in November, shared a series of messages from October 15th that appear to be from Mr Johnson to aides.
“I must say I have been slightly rocked by some of the data on covid fatalities. The median age is 82-81 for men 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get COVID and live longer. Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4%) and of those virtually all survive. And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate,” they read.
“There are max 3m in this country aged over 80. It shows we don’t go for nation wide lockdown.”
The reason Cummings thinks this is so politically damaging is because he believes the delay in imposing the second lockdown cost lives. But as we’ve pointed out many times before, there is precious little evidence that lockdowns reduce transmission. And the R number was falling when the second lockdown was imposed, so the autumn wave peaked and fell without the need for a lockdown.
We’re publishing an original article today by an academic economist writing under the name of John William O’Sullivan setting out the case for the defence of the Prime Minister. Inevitably, it begins with a bit of throat clearing in which the author shares his reservations about Boris.
I am as hardcore a lockdown sceptic as they come. I was early to the game, and I question quite literally everything about the Government response – from face masks to lockdowns to vaccines. Nor am I fan of Boris. I am pro-Brexit, but I suspected that Boris was probably more clown than effective leader – more Beppe Grillo than Winston Churchill.
When he was nominated, I had concerns not just about his public persona, but about his private life. I know that this is unfashionable in Britain, but it should not be. In our professional lives we all know that if someone’s private life is a car crash, this is usually reflected in their professional competencies. Based on this simple and obvious wisdom, the taboo in Britain about questioning public officials based on their private lives – which, so far as I can tell, is purely a post-Profumo phenomenon – should be re-examined. It seems to me that the refurbishment scandal hanging over Boris and his newly minted wife confirms this impression.
But having got that out of the way, he then comes to the nub of the argument.
So, why would I defend old Boris? For the simple reason that the revelations that have come from Dominic Cummings speak volumes. Prior to these revelations I bought into the predominant narrative: that Boris had been a sceptic but then he was hospitalised for COVID-19 and the experience left him lobotomised and compliant. But this view is no longer tenable.
Cummings’ accusations are credible because they come from a hostile source. Everything that he pumps into the media ecosystem is designed to harm Boris. These accusations have been confirmed by others involved. They meet, as the ancient historians say, the flipside of the ‘criteria of embarrassment’.
Yet the accusations paint a picture of a committed sceptic and social libertarian fighting against a mob of technocrats. Cummings, himself being a mediocre technocrat, cannot see that his accusations play in Boris’s favour – but they do. Boris’s Cabinet – a hot mess of career Tories, stuffed shirts, and closet authoritarians – appear to have bullied him into becoming the ‘lockdown-zealot Boris’ that we have all come to know and hate.
Dominic Cummings has published a trove of confidential material on his Twitter and Substack accounts today, including a WhatsApp exchange between him and the Prime Minister in which Boris describes the Health Secretary as “Totally f***ing hopeless”. MailOnlinehas more.
In an exchange from March 27th last year Mr Cummings criticised the Health Secretary over the failure to ramp up testing. Mr Johnson replied: “Totally f***ing hopeless.” He then tried to call his senior aide three times without managing to get through.
Another from the same day saw Mr Cummings complain that the Department of Health had been turning down ventilators because “the price has been marked up”. Mr Johnson said: “It’s Hancock. He has been hopeless.”
On April 27, Mr Johnson apparently messaged Mr Cummings to say that PPE was a “disaster”, suggesting that Michael Gove should take charge instead.
“I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting Gove on.”
Mr Cummings dropped the incendiary revelations in a lengthy post on the Substack blogging platform just minutes before PMQs.
It included vicious passages condemning Mr Johnson for “telling rambling stories and jokes” instead of chairing crucial meetings properly, and a claim that the PM is intending to quit in order to “make money” rather than serving a full term if he wins the next election.
In his testimony to the Health and Science select committees, Dominic Cummings heavily criticised the Government’s handling of the pandemic. One of the biggest mistakes, he argued, was the failure to impose border controls:
Obviously, we should have shut the borders in January. We should have done exactly what Taiwan did… Yes, that has some disruption, but the kind of cost-benefit ratio is massively, massively out of whack, and at least it is worth a try, like lots of things. At least you try it … If it doesn’t work, you still have the whole nightmare to deal with, anyway.
However, Cummings somewhat absolved the Government of blame on this score – at least with the respect to the period before April – insofar as all the scientists were advising against border controls:
He was told, and we were all told repeatedly, that the advice is not to close the borders, because essentially it would have no effect… you cannot blame the Prime Minister directly. That was the official advice. The official advice was, categorically, that closing the borders will have no effect.
Cummings’ testimony is consistent with the evidence from SAGE meetings in January and February of last year. For example, the minutes of a meeting on January 22nd record that “NERVTAG does not advise port of entry screening”.
Another factor Cummings mentioned, as to why the Government didn’t impose border controls, is political correctness:
At this time, another group-think thing was that it was basically racist to call for closing the borders and blaming China, the whole Chinese new year thing and everything else. In retrospect, I think that was just obviously completely wrong.
What should we make of Cummings’ argument that border controls were at least “worth a try” in January? On the face of it, the argument seems very reasonable. In the best-case scenario, we could have achieved the same outcomes as New Zealand – zero excess mortality and just a small decline in GDP. And in the worst-case scenario, we’d have been in the same situation as otherwise.
However, the latter outcome – being no worse-off – isn’t necessarily the worst-case scenario. A potentially even worse scenario is if we’d contained the virus until the autumn, and then experienced a major epidemic at the same time as the NHS came under its normal winter pressures.
This was in fact one of the reasons why scientists were initially advising against both border controls and lockdowns. Cummings was apparently told:
Even if we therefore suppress it completely, all that you are going to do is get a second peak in the winter when the NHS is already, every year, under pressure … If you try and flatten it now, the second peak comes up in the wintertime and that is even worse than the summer.
This argument should not be dismissed out of hand. Several of the European countries with the highestdeath tolls – Poland, Bulgaria, Czechia – are ones that escaped the first wave, only to get clobbered in the second. (Of course, there may be several reasons for the high death tolls in these countries; I’m not suggesting the epidemic’s timing is the only one.)
Deciding whether to impose border controls therefore represents a trade-off between the benefits of buying time and/or achieving containment versus the risks of postponing the epidemic until the winter.
I’ve written a piece for Mail+ today about one of the overlooked aspects of Dominic Cummings’s testimony. The reason he was able to dominate the news headlines is because the broadcast media hasn’t uncovered most of the scandals he revealed before. We’d heard about a few of these stories, but the sheer depth of incompetence he revealed at the heart of Government last March was genuinely shocking. Okay, he was protected by Parliamentary privilege and it might have been difficult for television journalists to broadcast some of these stories – to accuse Matt Hancock of being a serial liar, for instance – but that’s surely not the main reason we hadn’t heard any of this stuff before. So what is the reason? I think Ofcom has a lot to answer for, as I explain in my article.
On March 27, 2020, four days after Boris announced the first lockdown, Ofcom sent some “important guidance” to its licensees, cautioning them to take “particular care” when broadcasting “statements that seek to question or undermine the advice of public health bodies on the coronavirus, or otherwise undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information about the disease”.
Was this a shocking attempt to muzzle the free press? Three weeks later, the regulator showed it meant business by reprimanding Eamonn Holmes, presenter of ITV’s This Morning, for breaching this guidance. His sin, according to Ofcom, was to say he didn’t think people expressing unorthodox views about the virus – such as the one linking the symptoms of Covid-19 to 5G masts – should be vilified by the mainstream media. He didn’t say he thought that particular conspiracy theory was true. In fact, he described it as “not true and incredibly stupid”. He merely said it ought to be discussed.
For that heresy, Ofcom gave him a stern ticking-off, telling him he “could have undermined people’s trust in the views being expressed by the authorities on the coronavirus”.
After that, we barely heard a squeak of criticism from broadcast journalists about the Government’s handling of the crisis. Whenever a dissenting voice popped up on the BBC, it often felt like a mistake, as though the person had only managed to slip past the official gatekeepers when they were looking the other way.
For instance, on October 14th, 2020, Professor Sunetra Gupta, a prominent critic of the Government’s approach to the pandemic, appeared on BBC News to talk about the local lockdowns that had been imposed in the north of England. It is claimed that just before she went on air, one of the producers told her not to mention the Great Barrington Declaration, a document signed by eminent scientists setting out an alternative policy. Where did that instruction come from?
Another example: At the end of September, Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, tweeted that she’d been invited on to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the lockdown on the understanding that the scientists who opposed it would be portrayed as beyond the pale, only for Prof Gupta, who appeared alongside her, to make a compelling, logical argument. The SAGE panjandrum was furious.
“I’d got prior agreement from R4 about the framing of the item,” she harrumphed. “I was assured that this would not be held as an even-handed debate.”
Luckily for the BBC, it managed to avoid being censured by the state regulator for this momentary lapse.
Lockdown Sceptics‘ readers have had their fill of Dominic Cummings stories in the last 24 hours. However, his claim, repeated yesterday in front of MPs, that without a lockdown last March “the NHS is going to be smashed in weeks” cannot go unanswered.
These are the words that, according to Cummings, data analyst Ben Warner said to Boris Johnson when he confronted him with “evidence” on Friday March 13th 2020 that a lockdown was necessary to prevent the NHS being imminently overwhelmed.
March 12th and 13th 2020 are notable for being the days when various Government advisers did the media rounds to sell to the public the idea of “building up some kind of herd immunity“, as Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance put it on Radio 4’s Today programme. Prior to this, the Government had been sticking to the script of their action plan and pandemic preparedness strategy that did not talk about herd immunity (even if it implied it) but about mitigation of the impact of the disease.
Whose idea it was to start talking about building up herd immunity by infection is not clear, and, despite pontificating for seven hours yesterday, Dominic Cummings did not enlighten us on that point. The move was, however, disastrous for Government public relations, as the concept jarred with the public. Worse, it was criticised by scientists and health care professionals, who argued that herd immunity through infection was not a sound policy aim even if it would be the inevitable result of the mitigation strategy. Dr Adam Kucharski from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine put the matter succinctly on Twitter:
Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s former Chief Aide, began his appearance in front of a joint meeting of the Science and Technology Select Committee and the Health and Social Care Select Committee today by apologising for his own mistakes relating to the Government’s response to Covid and for falling – alongside ministers, advisors and other officials – “disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect… in a crisis like this”.
It didn’t take long for Dominic’s attention to turn to the failings of others. Perhaps his most eye-catching assertion was that Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked “for at least 15 to 20 things”, including “lying to everybody on multiple occasions”. The MailOnlinehas more.
He accused the Health Secretary, among other things, of overplaying the U.K.’s readiness for a massive infectious disease outbreak early last year.
And in a gobsmaking [sic] personal attack, which even took the MPs on the Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees by surprise, he today said: “Like in much of the Government system, there were many brilliant people at relatively junior and middle levels who were terribly let down by senior leadership.
“I think the Secretary of State for Health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.
“There’s no doubt at all that many senior people performed far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect. I think the Secretary of State for Health is certainly one of those people.
“I said repeatedly to the Prime Minister that he should be fired, so did the Cabinet Secretary, so did many other senior people.”
Mr Cummings said one of Matt Hancock’s lies was that everybody got the treatment they deserved in the first peak when “many people were left to die in horrific circumstances”.
Asked to provide evidence of the Health Secretary’s lying, the former Chief Aide to the Prime Minister told the Commons committee: “There are numerous examples. I mean in the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required.
“He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”
Mr Cummings said that assurances given to him by Mr Hancock in January last year that pandemic preparations were brilliant “were basically completely hollow”.
Other points made by Cummings relating to the Government’s Covid response were highlighted by Toby last night, and Sky News has since produced a handy report on the main allegations made in the session.
Having read Dominic Cummings’ twitter thread on the Government’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic – I had 10 hours to spare and thought, ‘Why not?’ – I began to suspect that Boris might be a lockdown sceptic. The central plank of Dom’s case against the PM in his thread is that he should have locked down earlier and the reason he didn’t is that he naively thought that a policy of shielding the elderly and vulnerable, and encouraging symptomatic people to quarantine at home, would mean ~60% of the population would become infected over the summer, thereby avoiding a second wave in the autumn/winter, when the NHS would have found it harder to cope due to the annual winter NHS crisis – the so-called ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Hmmm. Sounds pretty sensible to me – and to get an idea of how that would have worked out, we only have to look at Sweden, which avoided a hard lockdown throughout 2020 and had one of the lowest age-adjusted excess mortality rates in Europe.
Dom tries to swat this argument away in his thread, accusing “UK political pundits” of “spreading nonsense on Sweden/lockdowns”, and compares Sweden unfavourably with Denmark. A pretty feeble response, as we’ve pointed out numerous times on Lockdown Sceptics. (see Noah Carl’s piece on Monday for a comprehensive rebuttal of the “Yeah, but, Denmark” critique of Sweden’s approach.) No, the example of Sweden, which refused to lock down and whose health service never came close to being overwhelmed, remains a devastating riposte to the apocalyptic doom-mongering of people like Dom back in March of last year, who were screaming at the Prime Minister to lock everyone in their homes because… the NHS.
As I say, reading that thread, it seems pretty clear that Boris’s instincts were correct and the reason he switched tack in the week leading up to March 23rd was because he was surrounded by bed-wetting hysterics like Mr Cummings.
But today’s Daily Mail confirms it: Boris is a lockdown sceptic. I’ll let the Mail summarise the “explosive allegations”, which Dom has clearly leaked to them:
Boris Johnson referred to Covid as “Kung-Flu” and – before he was infected with the virus – offered to be injected with it live on TV to “show it’s nothing to be scared of”, Dominic Cummings will claim today.
They are among the explosive allegations that Mr Cummings, Mr Johnson’s former chief adviser, will make to MPs investigating the Government’s handling of the epidemic.
In an extraordinary claim, he will accuse the Prime Minister of being responsible for “thousands of deaths” by delaying a second lockdown when a second wave of the virus hit the U.K. in the winter. …
The Mail has learned that Mr Cummings will allege Mr Johnson:
* Argued against tough Covid curbs on the grounds that “it is only killing 80-year-olds”; * Did say “no more f***ing lockdowns, let the bodies pile high in their thousands”. * Said he regretted being “pushed” into ordering lockdowns because the “economic damage is more damaging than the loss of life”.
No doubt Boris could have expressed his scepticism more diplomatically – assuming Dom is telling the truth – but the substance of these points is correct: for those under 65 and with no underlying health conditions, the virus is nothing to be scared of; the average age of those who’ve died from COVID-19 in the UK is about 80; and the economic damage caused by the lockdowns will certainly outweigh the harms the lockdowns have prevented, if any.
Should anyone be in any doubt that Boris is a 64 carat lockdown sceptic, Dom has some more “devastating” points:
Mr Cummings will also say that before the decision, Mr Johnson vowed: “I’m going to be the mayor of Jaws, like I should have been in March (when the first lockdown was ordered).”
The Prime Minister has said that he regards the mayor in the Jaws movie – who refuses to close the resort’s beach even after a shark has killed tourists, for fear of damage to the local economy – as one of his “heroes”.
I must say, I take some comfort from this. Regular readers will know that until that fateful U-turn on March 23rd 2020 I was a huge fan of Boris’s and have struggled to reconcile the Rabelaisian, liberty-loving character I’ve known for the past 38 years with the furrowed-browed headmaster of the last 15 months. As I asked the journalist Quentin Letts in our recent Free Speech Union chat: How did Sid James become Hattie Jacques?
Turns out, Boris’s Jamesian side wasn’t entirely abandoned; it was just just kept in check by the Jacquists in 10 Downing Street.
Presumably, one reason Boris allowed himself to be pushed around by these chin-wobblers is because he was worried they’d accuse him of needlessly killing thousands of people if he didn’t do what they said. In which case, Dom’s suicide bomber routine is actually quite helpful. Boris allowed Dom to browbeat him into following his lockdown strategy and the disloyal bastard is still accusing him of being a mass murderer. So Boris has little to lose from ignoring these Cassandras from now on. They’ll turn on him whatever he does so there’s no point in trying to keep them on side.
It’s time to assert yourself, Prime Minister. At the next meeting of the Cabinet, announce that you’re going to reopen on June 21st come hell or high water and anyone who thinks that’s a bad idea should resign now or forever hold their peace. Thereafter, if the usual suspects start briefing against stage 4 of the Roadmap, including those snakes on SAGE, he should sack the bloody lot of them.
Home Secretary Priti Patel appeared on Andrew Marr on Sunday and repeated the Government line that “herd immunity” was never the Government’s strategy. “Our strategy was always about protecting public health, saving lives, and protecting the NHS,” she said.
Outside Government it seems to be accepted, including by its defenders, that this is untrue and herd immunity was originally part of the Government’s plan. Referring to allegations by Boris Johnson’s former Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings that the Government was following a herd immunity strategy until March, UnHerd editor Freddie Sayers writes:
Cummings’s big accusation that the initial pandemic response plan, based on flu, included the goal of herd immunity is long-established, as is the fact that the Government initially considered it, then deviated from it rapidly when its implications became clear.
If this is so, why does the Government continue to deny it?
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Minister for Business, appeared on Good Morning Britain today to try to explain:
It was never the policy of this Government. Boris Johnson was very clear that the only thing that mattered was that we make sure that we saved lives and we keep our NHS safe and able to function, not only to protect those who might get Covid but also everybody else. … I’m very comfortable that the Prime Minister never had as his policy herd immunity.
Trevelyan was asked about remarks by Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on March 13th 2020, when he said: “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.”
The Times explains the distinction Trevelyan and the Government are seeking to draw.
In early March of 2020, there was rising publicconcern that the UK was taking an altogether different approach to its neighbours, leading some people to joke that Britain was the world’s “control group”. To allay public fears, the health Secretary Matt Hancock wrote an op-ed in The Telegraph on March 15th claiming that “herd immunity” was not part of the government’s plan. Here’s the full quote:
We have a plan, based on the expertise of world-leading scientists. Herd immunity is not a part of it. That is a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy. Our goal is to protect life from this virus, our strategy is to protect the most vulnerable and protect the NHS through contain, delay, research and mitigate.
Now Dominic Cummings – the former chief advisor to Boris Johnson, who left No. 10 “with immediate effect” in mid November – has claimed that the government did intend to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy. At 3:38 this afternoon, Cummings tweeted:
Media generally abysmal on covid but even I’ve been surprised by 1 thing: how many hacks have parroted Hancock’s line that ‘herd immunity wasn’t the plan’ when ‘herd immunity by Sep’ was *literally the official plan in all docs/graphs/meetings* until it was ditched
In a subsequent tweet, Cummings elaborated on why the government’s original plan was “ditched”. He writes:
In week of 9/3, No10 was made aware by various people that the official plan wd lead to catastrophe. It was then replaced by Plan B. But how ‘herd immunity by Sep’ cd have been the plan until that week is a fundamental issue in the whole disaster
What Cummings says is of course broadly consistent with the statements Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance had made up until the date of Hancock’s article, as well as with the infamous ‘UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011’. In a hearing of the Health and Social Care Committee on March 5th, Whitty said, “what we’re very keen to do is not intervene until the point we absolutely have to, so as to minimise economic and social disruption.”
Opinions obviously differ about whether the original plan would “lead to catastrophe”, but it’s interesting to have an insider’s perspective on the Government’s early planning.
Stop Press: In a further tweet, Cummings has accused the Government of lying. He writes:
No10 decided to lie: ‘herd immunity has never been… part of our coronavirus strategy’. V foolish, & appalling ethics, to lie about it. The right line wd have been what PM knows is true: our original plan was wrong & we changed when we realised