On Tuesday, the official inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain revealed a prime minister who believed he was the mayor from “Jaws” and frequently made profane outbursts about the Cabinet. This day provided significant revelations.
During a dramatic day, former chief adviser Dominic Cummings and former director of communications Lee Cain testified, providing insight into the challenges faced by the British government in dealing with the unfolding crisis of 2020 and 2021.
Many important individuals, including Johnson and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have yet to share their perspectives. However, POLITICO has compiled nine significant assertions from a significant day at the investigation, where numerous private WhatsApp messages and internal government emails were revealed for the first time.
Britain’s strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic was not actually a plan at all.
Cain’s testimony on Tuesday morning portrayed a highly negative portrayal of the UK government’s readiness for the COVID-19 outbreak.
Shortly before the nation entered a complete lockdown, Johnson, who Cain stated had compared the virus to “swine flu” and initially worried about causing media hysteria by highlighting the risks, introduced a “coronavirus action plan” outlining how the government would manage the spread.
However, according to Cain’s testimony, the proposal lacked specificity and was primarily intended for communication purposes.
Cain stated that there was a strategy in place, but there was no concrete plan. He expressed concern that if this was considered the plan, it was evident that there was no solid plan in place.
Sunak was concerned about the economic impact of the lockdown.
The majority of the evidence centered on Johnson’s residence at Downing Street, but the current resident of Number 10 was also heavily involved in the pandemic and some aspects of the investigation.
Rishi Sunak was then the top finance minister at the all-powerful Treasury. One exchange between Cummings and Cain on WhatsApp, just days before Britain locked down, suggests Sunak had warned Johnson about the impact the measures would have on the economy.
The text message from Cummings to Cain on March 19, 2020 states that Rishi has expressed concerns about bond markets potentially not being able to fund our debt.
Cummings described Johnson as being heavily influenced by “Jaws mode wank” when considering implementing a lockdown. This phrase is likely a reference to Johnson’s admiration for the mayor in the film “Jaws,” who stubbornly refuses to close the beaches despite the danger posed by the shark.
In past meetings, scientific advisors have expressed worry about Sunak’s main “eat out to help out” program later in the year. As a result, the current prime minister may have to answer difficult questions when he is summoned for the inquiry.
3) Johnson possessed the incorrect set of skills.
Cain stated during the investigation that he felt Johnson’s leadership approach was not appropriate for the current crisis.
During the hearings, Johnson’s leadership style was thoroughly scrutinized, with many describing him as a leader who preferred to seek input from various sources before making a decision.
Cain used tactful language to express that COVID was not a suitable challenge for this prime minister’s abilities. He acknowledged Johnson’s display of “great strength” during Brexit in considering various perspectives before making a choice, but criticized his “oscillating” approach in handling the coronavirus crisis.
Cummings was not hesitant in criticizing the prime minister who appeared to be inconsistent. “Almost everyone refers to him as the trolley,” stated the ex-chief aide.
There are major uncertainties surrounding the lifting of restrictions in the summer of 2020.
Cain emphasized that there were legitimate worries among government officials regarding Johnson’s choice to resume operations of schools, workplaces, shops, and restaurants in the summer of 2020.
According to Cain, allowing people to return to these types of locations would only be successful if the UK had no intention of implementing suppression measures again. However, the government was advised that another lockdown would be necessary once the virus started to spread.
In October 2020, a second lockdown was implemented as a precaution against the potential “medical and moral disaster” that Johnson had cautioned could occur for the National Health Service.
Johnson discussed the idea of allowing older individuals to come to terms with their destiny.
According to a diary entry written by the former Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, it seems that Prime Minister Johnson believed that COVID was a natural way of handling the elderly.
This aligns with information from Cain and Cummings, who shared WhatsApp messages with Johnson where the ex-PM expressed doubts about the NHS being overwhelmed.
Referencing statistics that indicate a low percentage of individuals under the age of 60 require hospitalization for COVID-19 (4 percent) and the high survival rate among this group, Johnson even joked, “Contract COVID and you may end up living longer. Perhaps we need to rethink our approach.”
Cummings has a strong dislike for the Cabinet and continues to harbor negative feelings towards Matt Hancock.
Dominic Cummings has always been open about his dislike for the Westminster and Conservative elites. The messages he shared with Cain on WhatsApp reveal this animosity in vivid language.
Johnson declined a request from Cummings to update the Cabinet on an upcoming reshuffle. In response, Cummings expressed anger and warned that Johnson was making a significant error in the following message.
He texted, “Currently, the [Westminster] insiders believe you have lost focus, you are content with incompetent leaders, and they believe that much of the chaotic news on the front pages is originating from Cabinet instead of No 10, even though it is actually coming from the untamed Cabinet.”
Cummings further stressed the significance of removing health official Matt Hancock, whose name was consistently mentioned.
During the inquiry, Cummings made statements accusing the former health secretary of being deceitful and causing harm to individuals, as attention was concentrated on safeguarding care homes for the aging and disabled during the pandemic. Hancock will have the opportunity to address these allegations when he appears before the inquiry at a later time.
The top official of Britain has faced severe criticism.
One important individual mentioned multiple times in the evidence from Tuesday was Mark Sedwill. He previously held the role of Britain’s top civil servant, also known as the Cabinet secretary, before being replaced by Simon Case in a restructuring by Johnson.
Cummings alleges that Sedwill spent a crucial meeting during the early stages of the pandemic discussing chickenpox, indicating a significant lack of comprehension about the gravity of the virus in the important Cabinet Office.
Cummings stated that Sedwill, a seasoned figure in Whitehall and security with prior experience as head of the Home Office, was appointed by Theresa May to take on one of the most significant roles in the British government. However, he believed that Sedwill was not aware of the major issues occurring within the Cabinet Office.
In an unexpected turn, Cummings recounted that he pleaded with Johnson to not dismiss Sedwill due to the potential chaos it could create within the government. He deemed the decision unjust for Sedwill personally and believed it triggered a major upheaval within the entire system.
Cummings described the firing as a complete disaster. Sedwill has not yet shared his perspective on the situation.
8) Cummings’ swearing scrutinized
“Mr. Cummings, were you accused of being disrespectful and displaying misogyny towards individuals at Downing Street?” Inquired Hugo Keith, the lead counsel for the inquiry, with a sharp tone.
“Absolutely not,” Cummings responded.
Shortly after, a message from Cummings to Cain in the summer of 2020 regarding senior civil servant Helen MacNamara appeared on the inquiry screen.
“If I am forced to deal with Helen’s nonsense again, involving PET [the government’s propriety and ethics team], which is intended to waste a significant portion of my time and prevent me from focusing on other tasks, I will personally restrain her and remove her from the premises,” Cummings expressed.
“I am not concerned with the method, but that woman needs to be removed from our presence. We cannot continue to handle the disastrous collapse of the British government while also avoiding attacks from that unpleasant person,” he stated.
Cummings expressed regret for his choice of words and acknowledged that they were extremely unacceptable. However, he maintained that the main problem he was addressing – concerning the excessive time spent in unproductive meetings during a chaotic Cabinet Office – was significantly more serious.
When questioned about his language and potential misogyny, Cummings responded defensively.
“I spoke more harshly about men than I did about women,” he stated.
Cummings seemed to have blocked Johnson on the messaging app WhatsApp.
The WhatsApp conversations that were documented reveal that Cummings seemed to have blocked Johnson on the messaging application right after a heated argument, which ultimately led to his departure from No. 10 in late 2020.
Cummings and Cain departed from their positions in the government in November 2020. Johnson had accused them of spreading harmful information about his leadership and exacerbating internal conflicts.
In the texts uncovered during the investigation, Johnson contacted Cummings to address a multitude of negative media reports about him. These reports included allegations that he was indecisive, would not last in his position for more than six months, and that his partner, Carrie, was covertly influencing lockdown policies.
“Do you bear responsibility for all of this unpleasantness? No? Then try to see it from my perspective. This is an appalling display of self-centeredness by a government that should be addressing a national emergency,” Johnson stated. “That’s why I wanted to have a conversation and discuss how we could work together to eliminate the entire situation. But if you insist on refusing, that is your decision.”
The investigation is ongoing, with key officials from the British healthcare system questioned on Wednesday.