From Jeff Goldblum to Carrie's dog, pox parties to care homes chaos, the grenades tossed at the PM by Dominic Cummings
Former chief adviser to the prime minister Dominic Cummings has put the boot into his former ally Boris Johnson and his government's handling of the Covid pandemic during questioning by the combined Health and Technology select committees on Wednesday.
During seven hours of evidence to MPs, Mr Cummings – who left Downing Street in acrimonious circumstances last year – was scathing about some of those he worked with during the pandemic.
From his long-winded 'explanation' of his notorious Barnard Castle trip to his comparison of a character in the film Independence Day to a senior advisor, what did we learn from Mr Cummings' testimony?
Government's response was like 'Independence Day'
Mr Cummings compared the government’s delay in locking down and a lack of an action plan to sci-fi movie Independence Day in which the US is devastated by a surprise alien invasion.
He said data expert Ben Warner was the UK government's Jeff Goldblum, who plays a scientist in the film whose warnings were ignored to disastrous consequences.
“This is like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying, ‘the aliens are here and your whole plan is broken, and you need a new plan’,” he said.
Government's lack of accountability like 'spiderman memes'
A corner of the internet was evoked by Mr Cummings during his grilling when describing the government's failure to assert just who was responsible for things.
“You know that Spiderman meme, both the Spidermans pointing at each other?” Mr Cummings told MPs.
“It’s like that but with everybody… all the different Spider-Mans are pointing at each other saying ‘you’re responsible’.”
That trip to Barnard Castle
Mr Cummings told MPs it had not seemed “crazy” to drive to Barnard Castle with his wife and son to test his eyesight during the first lockdown.
When asked by if he stood by his account, he said: “If I was going to make up a story I would have come up with a hell of a lot better one than that one right? It’s such a weird story."
“I tried to explain this all at the time, it seemed to me like, OK if you’re going to drive 300 miles to go back to work the next day then pottering down the road for 30 miles and back to see how you feel after you have come off what you thought might be your death bed didn’t seem crazy to me at the time.”
He gave his explanation another test drive during the committee: “I tried to explain this all at the time, it seemed to me like, OK if you’re going to drive 300 miles to go back to work the next day then pottering down the road for 30 miles and back to see how you feel after you have come off what you thought might be your death bed didn’t seem crazy to me at the time.”
He added: “I wish I had never heard of Barnard Castle. I wish I had never gone. I am sorry.”
Carrie Symonds went "crackers" on day government should have been focusing on Covid (and potential war)
March 12 2020 sounded like a rather hectic day in Downing Street. According to Mr Cummings, not only had officials finally twigged that the growing threat of Covid-19 was rather serious, the then US president Donald Trump had been in touch to ask the UK government about a potential bombing campaign in Iraq.
But potential war and deadly viruses aside, there was another issue. On the day Mr Cummings wanted to introduce coronavirus quarantine, he says Downing Street was distracted by Mr Johnson's partner Carrie Symonds going "crackers" over a story in The Times that suggested Dilyn the No.10 rescue dog was going to be reshuffled.
Giving evidence to the Commons health and science committees, Mr Cummings suggested Ms Symonds had been part of the problem during March 2020.
“The Prime Minister’s girlfriend was going completely crackers about this story and demanding that the press office deal with that," Mr Cummings said.
“So we had this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying are we going to bomb Iraq? Part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine, the Prime Minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial.”
Patel denies Government policy was to build Covid ‘herd immunity’
Dominic Cummings will allege Boris Johnson said 'Covid is only killing 80-year-olds'
Shield around care homes "nonsense"
Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser suggested the Prime Minister was furious when he came back to work after recovering from coronavirus to find that untested patients had been discharged to care homes in England, thereby allowing the virus to spread.
He said Health Secretary Matt Hancock had told Mr Johnson previously that they would be tested.
In April 2020, Mr Hancock came under fire for allowing patients to be discharged to care homes without a Covid test.
During media interviews, he insisted that from the beginning of the pandemic, the Government had tried to “throw a protective ring around our care homes”.
There have been 36,275 deaths involving Covid-19 in care homes since the pandemic began, according to the latest figures from the UK’s statistics agencies.
Matt Hancock "should have been fired"
It is unlikely that Mr Cummings will be on Matt Hancock's Christmas card list after the kicking he took from the man he once stood up for following the former aide's bizarre trip to Barnard Castle.
Mr Cummings said there were 15-20 reasons why Mr Hancock should have been thrown out of the Cabinet – including, he claimed, lying both in meetings and publicly, describing his behaviour as “criminal, disgraceful".
The former aide said Mr Hancock’s public promise to deliver 100,000 tests a day by the end of April was “incredibly stupid” because it was already an internal goal.
“In my opinion he should’ve been fired for that thing alone, and that itself meant the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say ‘look at me and my 100k target’."
Chicken pox parties and Covid was "no worse than swine flu"
The UK came close to throwing chicken pox parties as No.10 ploughed on with its much-denied herd immunity policy.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill reportedly telling the prime minister to go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying “it’s like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September”.
And talking of TV, Mr Johnson thought Covid-19 was just a “scare story” and the “new swine flu” and it was suggested chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty should inject him with the virus on live television.
In fact, according to Mr Cummings, the prime minister was potentially so much of a risk to any national disaster plan that he was told to stay away from Cobra meetings in case he derailed things.
“The view of various officials inside No 10 was – if we have the Prime Minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone ‘it’s swine flu, don’t worry about it, I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of’ – that would not help actually serious planning”, Mr Cummings said.
There was no plan A (and plan B was a bit patchy)
Mr Cummings said the government’s original plan was for limited intervention with the hope of achieving herd immunity but that was abandoned when it became clear the scale of the death toll that would result.
But 'plan' A, it became clear, would break the NHS result in a daily death toll of 4,000, Mr Cummings said.
He said the “second most powerful official in the country” at the time, Helen MacNamara, who was deputy cabinet secretary, walked into the room during the meeting with Ben Warner on March 13 and said: “I’ve just been talking to the official Mark Sweeney who is in charge of co-ordinating with the Department of Health. He said, quote, ‘I’ve been told for years that there was a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We’re in huge trouble’.”
Listen to our politics podcast, Calling Peston:
Mr Cummings said she told him: “I think we are absolutely f*****, I think this country is headed for disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people.”
Plan B was for “lockdown, suppress, crash programmes” – the accelerated drive to boost tests, treatments and develop vaccines in order to escape both the first and second waves, he said.
Dominic Cummings agrees that Dominic Cummings should never have had as much power as he did
“It is completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position in my personal opinion,” Mr Cummings said.
"I’m not smart. I’ve not built great things in the world," he added for good measure.
Groupthink had devastating consequences
The "groupthink" pervading Westminster, particularly the Department of Health, meant no one wanted to stick their head above the parapet, Mr Cummings said.
He claims the reason why he did not "hit the panic button" sooner was because he was "frightened of acting" and blamed "groupthink" for the slow response to the encroaching threat of Covid in March 2020.
“I apologise for not acting earlier and If I had acted earlier then lots of people might still be alive.”
The government fell apart when Boris Johnson went into intensive care
When the prime minister became ill with coronavirus in April 2020 his colleagues, now suddenly entirely responsible for keeping plan B going, were not quite ready.
The former chief aide told the Commons committee the "government kind of collapsed”.
“In lots of ways, the whole core of government fundamentally fell apart…”
Discussing the setting up of mass testing, he added: “However, the core of the Government kind of collapsed when the Prime Minister got ill himself, because he’s suddenly gone and then people are literally thinking that he might die.”