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Johnson aides Cummings and Cain lay bare chaos and dysfunction of Covid response

Photo by James Manning/PA

By Sam Blewett, David Hughes, Josh Payne and Sophie Wingate, PA

Two of Boris Johnson’s closest aides have laid bare the chaos and dysfunction in Government as coronavirus presented the biggest crisis the UK has seen since 1945.

Dominic Cummings told the official inquiry on Tuesday there was no shielding plan early in the pandemic and vulnerable groups were “appallingly neglected” as a “fatalistic” approach took hold.

The former chief adviser to the then-prime minister said strict border controls and the rapid expansion of testing could have had a “much better” outcome for saving lives and the economy than lockdowns.

Lee Cain, who was No 10’s director of communications, repeatedly cited Mr Johnson’s tendency to “oscillate” between decisions as delaying the response, which he said was the “wrong crisis” for him to deal with as prime minister.

The inquiry also saw diary entries from Sir Patrick Vallance showing that Mr Johnson suggested he believed the pandemic was “Nature’s way of dealing with old people” as he resisted lockdowns.

Mr Cummings, who was Mr Johnson’s top adviser, took aim at much of the Government during the “nightmare” of the pandemic as he gave evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Appearing in an unironed shirt, he had to apologise for calling ministers “useless f***pigs, morons, c****” but said his language only “understated” their competence.

He described the Cabinet Office as a “bomb site” and a “dumpster fire”.

Mr Cummings argued an “overall dysfunctional system” was in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, suggesting the only part of the system he did not fault was the special forces.

Strict border controls on travel from China with a “very, very hardcore” system at the airports and the rapid expansion of testing as soon as the virus was identified could have had a “much better” outcome than the national lockdown, he argued.

But he said a “fatalistic” approach had gripped the Government, which did not envisage attempting to create new systems to control the spread of coronavirus.

“No one thought it was really practical to build our way out of the problem,” he said.

“The fundamental U-turn that we shifted to, was to try and build our way out of it instead of fatalistically accepting it.”

Mr Cummings argued that the considerations about the impact of lockdown on vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities and domestic abuse victims were “entirely appallingly neglected by the entire planning system”.

He said “one of the most appalling things” was the lack of a shielding plan in March 2020 “and the Cabinet Office was trying to block us creating a shielding plan”.

Mr Cain repeatedly cited Mr Johnson’s tendency to “oscillate” between decisions as delaying the crisis response.

Top inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC asked Mr Cummings whether the trolley term was used to describe Mr Johnson’s propensity to change direction.

“Pretty much everyone called him a trolley, yeah,” Mr Cummings said.

Mr Cain, a long-term adviser to Mr Johnson who worked with him on the Brexit campaign, said his former boss’s erratic decision-making was “rather exhausting”.

Messages between him and Mr Cummings showed them venting their frustrations on WhatsApp.

“Get in here he’s melting down,” Mr Cummings wrote on March 19 2020, days before the first lockdown, adding that Mr Johnson was “back to Jaws mode w***”.

“I’ve literally said the same thing ten f****** times and he still won’t absorb it,” he added.

Explaining the Jaws reference, Mr Cain told the inquiry that Mr Johnson would refer to the mayor from the Steven Spielberg film “who wanted to keep the beaches open”.

“I think he had a routine from previous in his career where he would use that as a joke from one of his after-dinner speeches,” he said.

“The mayor was right all along to keep the beaches open because it would have been a long-term harm to the community – so it’s a sort of sub-reference to that.”

Mr Cain was more cautious than Mr Cummings by avoiding saying their old ally was not up to the job as prime minister.

“I think at that point – and it’s quite a strong thing to say – what would probably be clear in Covid is it was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,” Mr Cain said.

Explaining his wrong crisis theory, Mr Cain said his former boss would “often delay making decisions” and “change his mind on issues” after seeking advice from multiple sources.

Mr Cain was also critical of then-chancellor Rishi Sunak’s “eat out to help out” scheme.

He said it made “no sense whatsoever” by encouraging the public to dine in restaurants and pubs when a future lockdown would come and was a “cause of great frustration”.

A message from Mr Cummings sent on March 3 2020 said Mr Johnson did not believe Covid was a “big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done”.

He wrote to Mr Cain that “his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking (the) economy into a slump”.

Twenty days later, on March 23, Mr Johnson ordered the UK into lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Cain’s written evidence showed that Mr Johnson and others agreed in a meeting on March 14 that year that a full lockdown was the only way to save the NHS from collapse.

Asked if that was a longer-than-desired wait until the lockdown was announced, he said: “Yes, but I think you also have to consider it’s quite a big undertaking to lock down the entire country.”

Sir Patrick, the Government’s chief scientific adviser during Covid-19, wrote his own frustrations in dealing with Mr Johnson in his diaries.

The adviser wrote in August 2020 that Mr Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going”.

“Quite bonkers set of exchanges,” he said, referring to the “PM WhatsApp group”.

Then, in December 2020, Sir Patrick wrote that Mr Johnson said he believed he had been “acting early” and that the “public are with him (but his party is not)”.

“He says his party ‘thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them. A lot of moderate people think it is a bit too much’.”

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