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Cummings: Covid 'chicken pox parties' to reach herd immunity were considered by UK government

In an explosive evidence session, Cummings accused Boris Johnson of thinking Covid-19 was a “scare story”.

Image: Parliament TV

Updated May 26th 2021, 4:54 PM

BORIS JOHNSON’S FORMER adviser Dominic Cummings has given extraordinary evidence before a Westminster committee about the UK Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee, Cummings made a number of dramatic statements, including stating that Matt Hancock should have been fired for lying, and that Boris Johnson initially believed that Covid-19 was a “scare story”.

Cummings hit out at Johnson’s leadership, assessing the crisis as a case of “lions led by donkeys over and over again”.

He also said that by mid-March, the Government considered suggesting to the public to have ‘chicken pox parties’ for Covid-19.

In a colourful evidence session, that gave a rare insight into government workings, Cummings also said that data scientist Ben Warner was like Jeff Goldblum from the film Independence Day, and that ministers had pointed fingers at each other to say who was responsible, like that “Spiderman meme with all the spidermans pointing at each other”.

The former adviser, who left Downing Street last year after a behind-the-scenes power struggle with Johnson, told the MPs today: “The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its Government in a crisis like this.”

In some of the most explosive part of his evidence, Cummings said that a former deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara had said of the NHS on 13 March last year: “I think we are absolutely fucked, I think we are going to kill thousands of people”.

The previous day, the Cabinet met and data scientist Ben Warner argued in favour of lockdown. Cummings said: “It was like a scene from Independence Day with Warner as Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are coming.”

He said that the British government was not operating on a “war footing” in February last year, as the global crisis mounted and “lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February”, he said.

On his own actions at the beginning of the pandemic, Cummings said that he “acted too late” as he was frightened of acting.

“It’s true that I hit the panic button (in March 2020) and said we’ve got to ditch the official plan… I think it’s a disaster that I acted too late. The fundamental reason was that I was really frightened of acting,” Cummings said.

“I apologise for not acting earlier and if I had acted earlier then lots of people might still be alive.”

Cummings said that “The Secretary of State for Health [Matt Hancock] should have been fired for at least 15 or 20 things, including lying to everybody in multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly.”

“The shielding plan was literally hacked together in two all-nighters after 19 [March],” by a team of officials. “There was no plan for shielding. There wasn’t even a helpline for people. There wasn’t a plan for financial incentives. There wasn’t a plan for almost anything in any kind of detail at all.

“There wasn’t even a plan to bury all the bodies.”

According to Cummings, Johnson “came close” to firing the health minister in April 2020, “but just fundamentally wouldn’t do it”, highlighting thousands of deaths in elderly care homes after infected patients were discharged from hospitals.

Responding to the testimony, Downing Street said Johnson continues to have confidence in Hancock and does not believe the minister has been untruthful.

He said that there had been a plan to pursue something similar to herd immunity, and that Johnson was more concerned about the economy over health for the first three months of 2020.

“On this crazy day of the 12 [March], we’re sitting in the prime minister’s office and we’re talking about the herd immunity plan.

“The Cabinet Secretary said: ‘Prime Minister, you should go on TV tomorrow, and explain to people the herd immunity plan, and that 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 I said, ‘Mark [Sedwill], you’ve got to stop using this chicken pox analogy… chickenpox is not spreading exponentially and killing hundreds of 1000s of people.’

“And you can sense in the whole room there was this kind of shock, and it was only really at that moment that we realised. And this wasn’t some weird thing that the Cabinet Secretary came up with. He was saying what the official advice to him for the Department of Health was.”

When Cummings was asked about whether he was before the committee to ‘settle scores’, he said that “the families of those who have died deserve the truth”.

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Drive to Durham

The former adviser was also grilled about his lockdown-busting, cross-country drive to his family home in northern England in April 2020, after his wife contracted Covid.

At a subsequent news conference, Cummings was unrepentant, and provoked widespread scorn when he explained that he took one drive to a tourist landmark because he needed to test his eyesight.

He admitted on Wednesday that his defence of the trip then “undermined public confidence”, but said that he made the journey due to threats against his family.

“The prime minister and I agreed that because of the security things, we would basically just stonewall the story and not say anything about it,” he said.

But that approach turned into a “complete disaster” and full disclosure would have been better, Cummings conceded.

With reporting from the Press Association and AFP

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