LONDON — U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief aide lashed out Wednesday at the government he once served, saying people died “in horrific circumstances” because of authorities’ failed response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dominic Cummings told lawmakers investigating Britain’s pandemic response that officials including the prime minister went on vacation as the virus swept toward the U.K. in early 2020 and describing scenes of chaos in government as “like an out of-control movie.”
Cummings said Johnson initially regarded the pandemic as “just a scare story. He described it as the new swine flu.”
He said the government “was not operating on a war footing” early in the pandemic. “Lots of people were literally skiing.”
“The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me, disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this,” Cummings said.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” he said.
“People did not get the treatment they deserved. Many people were left to die in horrific circumstances,” he added.
The U.K. has recorded almost 128,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe, and experienced one of the world’s deepest recessions as three successive lockdowns hobbled the economy.
A mass vaccination campaign that started in December has brought infections and fatalities down sharply, but the government acknowledges it will have to answer serious questions about its handling of the virus at a future public inquiry.
Cummings’ testimony to Parliament’s science and health committees gave a taste of what might come out. Parliamentary committee sessions are often dry affairs, but Cummings’ dramatic testimony was broadcast live on television.
He delivered excoriating allegations of bad decisions and false assumptions within government in early 2020, saying “the whole thing just seemed like an out-of-control movie.”
It was “like a scene from ‘Independence Day’ with Jeff Goldblum saying ‘The aliens are here and your whole plan is broken,’” Cummings said.
Johnson defended the government’s response, saying “none of the decisions have been easy.”
“To deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult, and we have at every stage tried to minimize loss of life, to save lives, to protect the (health service) and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can,” Johnson said in the House of Commons.
Cummings is a self-styled political disruptor who has long expressed contempt for the civil service, many politicians and much of the media. One of the architects of the successful campaign to take Britain out of the European Union, he was appointed a top adviser when Johnson became prime minister in 2019.
Cummings was thrust from the shadows into the spotlight in May 2020, when newspapers revealed he had driven 250 miles (400 kilometers) across the country after contracting COVID-19, despite a nationwide stay-at-home order. His defense — that he was seeking childcare help from relatives in case he got sick — rang hollow to many Britons who had made sacrifices and endured isolation to follow the rules.
Johnson resisted calls to fire Cummings for flouting rules the government had imposed on the rest of the country. He left his job in November amid a power struggle inside the prime minister’s office.
In recent days, Cummings has used Twitter to direct a torrent of criticism at his former employer. He accuses the government of sticking with a policy of “herd immunity” — allowing the virus to spread through the population while protecting the most vulnerable — until it was too late to prevent draconian lockdowns and many deaths.
He said Wednesday that the government believed — wrongly, it turned out — that the British public would never accept strict lockdown measures, and that locking down would simply lead to a later, steeper peak in deaths.
The government denies that herd immunity was ever its policy, and critics accuse Cummings of glossing over the fact that he was one of the most powerful people in the government when key decisions were being made.
“I’ll leave others to determine how reliable a witness to all this he is,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said. “He was there at the time — what his motives would be I will leave to others.”
Cummings said he began “ringing alarm bells” in early March 2020, and apologized for not doing more to change the government’s strategy. Johnson eventually imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 23, and was hospitalized in intensive care with the virus in April 2020.
“If I had acted earlier, then lots of people might still be alive,” Cummings said.
“It was completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position,” he reflected. “It’s just completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there.”
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