Dominic Cummings has apologised for the mistakes Boris Johnson’s government made during the Covid-19 pandemic, conceding that he and his colleagues disastrously failed the British public.
The prime minister’s former chief adviser was giving evidence to the cross-party health and science and technology committees, chaired by the former Conservative cabinet ministers Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt.
Striking what appeared to be a deliberately humble tone, Cummings began his evidence by claiming that he and other advisers and ministers had failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation in January and well into February.
“The truth is that senior ministers, officials, advisers like me, fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this,” Cummings told Clark, the committee’s chair.
“When the public needed us most, we failed. And I’d like to say to all the families of those who have died unnecessarily, how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made, and my own mistakes.”
Cummings’ evidence on Wednesday was being closely watched across Westminster, after a string of highly critical tweets in recent days in which he has criticised the decisions made by his former boss, and the preparedness of Whitehall for a crisis.
He claimed he had realised the potential seriousness of the situation in Wuhan, China in January, and read out texts he sent to the health secretary, Matt Hancock, on 25 Janurary, asking about the government’s pandemic preparedness.
He said Hancock reassured him the government had a regularlyupdated pandemic plan ready – and that other institutions, including Public Health England and the World Health Organization, had at that time been reassuring.
But he conceded he had then not pressed the issue – and said Johnson had continued not to realise the scale of the problem. “In February, the prime minister regarded this as just a scare story,” he said, suggesting Johnson had compared it to swine flu.
Cummings made the extraordinary claim that he and other officials deliberately kept the prime minister away from meetings of the government’s emergency Cobra meetings during the early days of the crisis, because they thought Johnson would make light of the virus.
“Certainly, the view of various officials inside No 10 was if we have the PM chair Cobra meetings, and he just tells everyone ‘don’t worry about it, I’m going to get [England’s chief medical officer] 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.”
He said much of Downing Street’s attention in the early part of February was focused on other issues, including carrying out a cabinet reshuffle, and that in mid-February several key figures were “literally skiing”.
He added: “We didn’t figure this out until the back end of February.”
Cummings described it as “sort of tragic” that someone who had spent as much time as he had urging people to avoid groupthink, that he had not sounded the alarm more loudly.
Clark pressed Cummings about why he had not attended meetings of the key decision-making and advisory committees, Cobra and Sage, during the early days of the pandemic.
Cummings said he had sent colleagues, including his ally Ben Warner, to some meetings and claimed it was not helpful for him to attend all Sage meetings because they involved technical briefings.