On the evening of Friday 13 November 2020 the Prime Minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings exited 10 Downing Street carrying a large cardboard box. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had ordered him to leave with immediate effect after a bitter dispute involving Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds. Six months later Cummings took his revenge. Giving evidence over almost seven hours to a joint hearing of the Commons Health and Science committees on 26 May 2021, he launched an extraordinary attack on the Prime Minister, detailing a picture of chaos, indecision and deceit at the heart of the government as it attempted to contain the coronavirus crisis. DAVID YAFFE reports.
Dominic Cummings had worked side by side with Boris Johnson during the 2016 Brexit referendum. He was crucial to the Tory government’s success in the 2019 General Election campaign and therefore to Johnson becoming Prime Minister. So essential was Cummings that Johnson refused to sack him after his lockdown-breaking trip to Barnard Castle in Durham at the end of March 2020.
Cummings was aware of his low reputation with the public after his trip to Durham. He conceded that his account of the trip given in the Downing Street rose garden had been a ‘disaster’ and he had not been wholly truthful about it. He even adopted a tone of humility when he confessed that he, together with senior ministers, officials and advisors ‘fell disastrously short of the standards the public have a right to expect in a crisis’. Confessional over, he moved on to the offensive. His main targets were Boris Johnson and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Revenge is a dish best served cold
In his evidence to MPs Cummings claimed that fundamentally he regarded Johnson as ‘unfit for the job’. ‘Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die’ because of abject government failures. Cummings alleged that the Prime Minister did not take coronavirus seriously and remained unconvinced of the merits of lockdown to avoid excess deaths. Cummings said that he heard Johnson say he would rather see ‘bodies pile high’ than impose a third lockdown. Johnson regarded coronavirus as ‘a scare story’ and ‘the new swine flu’. He frequently likened himself to the mayor in the film Jaws who kept the beaches open despite the presence of a deadly shark. ‘Nobody could find a way around the problem of the Prime Minister, just like a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other’. Johnson’s hesitation to enter a second nationwide lockdown in autumn 2020, as cases of coronavirus were on the rise, was a clear dividing line with Cummings. The Prime Minister refused to take medical and scientific advice from Professors Whitty and Vallance, who stressed the need for another lockdown. Consequently there was a further spike in Covid deaths. Overall Cummings characterised the Cabinet Office as ‘terrifyingly shit’.
Hancock in the firing line
The Health Secretary Matt Hancock was portrayed as inept. Cummings said that he should have been fired for ‘at least 15 to 20 things – including lying to everybody on multiple occasions’. Among these lies, ‘we were told categorically in March  that people would be tested before they went back to care homes; we only subsequently found out that that hadn’t happened’. He added that the idea of a protective shield was ‘complete nonsense’ and that the situation was made worse by the lack of protective and testing equipment for staff. According to Cummings, Hancock ‘told us in the cabinet room everything is fine with PPE, we’ve got it all covered’. As we now know a total of 32,154 people died from Covid-19 in care homes in England and Wales between 28 December 2019 and 14 May 2021.
He further accused Hancock of being obsessed with a ‘stupid’ target he had set himself to offer 100,000 tests a day. Recalling a major battle in Whitehall, Cummings said that he had to call around to tell people ‘Do not do what Hancock says, build the thing properly for the medium term’. Cummings wanted to build a test and trace system from scratch capable of processing one million tests a day. Meanwhile Hancock was telling officials to ‘down tools on this’ and ‘hold tests back so I can hit my target’ so he could crow about his success on television. Cummings maintains that he should have been fired for that alone. ‘It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm’.
Cummings further claimed that Hancock blamed Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, for a shortage of personal protective equipment, saying that they had ‘blocked approvals’. Cummings said that he asked Mark Sedwell, the Cabinet Secretary, if this was true. He was told that it was ‘completely untrue’.
A dysfunctional government
While it is not possible to know who among the main protagonists is telling the truth, responsibility for the current 127,758 UK deaths from Covid-191 lies with a corrupt and inept government more concerned to reopen the British economy to profit-making activities than to protect the health and lives of the population. There is little to fear from the Labour Party opposition, who have largely accepted the government’s own narrative throughout the pandemic and failed to hold ministers to account under Keir Starmer’s ‘constructive engagement’ strategy.
To stay in power is the priority of the Johnson-led government. He cannot immediately sack the inept Hancock because a fall guy is needed between himself and the electorate when a public inquiry, sooner or later, reveals the shambles of his administration. If Hancock goes, next in line is the Prime Minister himself.2
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 282, June/July 2021
1. From worldometer.info 28 May 2021.
2. Information mainly taken from Financial Times and The Guardian 27 and 28 May 2021. For a discussion of the pandemic’s impact on Britain see David Yaffe ‘Pandemic exposes class and racist division in capitalist/imperialist Britain’ in FRFI 281 April/May 2021 at tinyurl.com/pdr6k5