Editorial Wednesday 26 May 2021: The People’s Dominic Show
It’s The People’s Dominic Show day.
The PM’s former chief advisor is giving evidence to the Commons Health/Science select committees’ joint ‘lessons learned’.
Mr Cummings was at the heart of Government during the pandemic. He now has the political and scientific nation’s attention.
This write-up will be as accurate as I can make it, but it is in real time: there will be elisions, omissions and lots of typos.
DC's answer to the opening question states that the Government failed disastrously, and he apologises for his part in that.
DC: 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. When the public needed us most, the government failed. I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that.
In the beginning
He gives details on his attempts in late January 2020 to check up on the state of preparation for the Wuhan disease outbreak, and again apologises that he had not taken a ‘red team’ approach to reviewing all the preparatory documents and plans. He says he did not realise the plans were hollow until ‘the back end of February’.
The Government did not behave as if COVID-19 were the most important thing on its agenda even in February 2020.
Mr Cummings again apologises that he didn’t hit the panic button far more in February 2020: he like most people was wrongly reassured by WHO. Committee co-chair Greg Clark MP pointed out that WHO declared it as a public health emergency on 30 January 2020.
One of his priorities in January and February 2020 was a procurement review, which had to be binned because of COVID-19 procurement problems. He flags the PM going off on holiday in mid-February 2020.
Mr Cummings hired physicist Ben Warner to build a data office in Number 10 Downing Street. Warner was later sent to SAGE meetings.
Cummings wrote a note to the PM in February 2020 regarding COVID-19. He will share it (if found) and other relevant notes with thre committee.
Cummings can’t remember if he went to COBRA security meetings, on grounds of the best use of his time. He sent Ben Warner and Imran, the PM’s personal secretary with NHS responsibility. Cummings can’t remember if he attended any of the five COBRA meetings in February 2020. He did not tell the PM to attend them. Warner’s science training made him valuable to take on the data.
Cummings was individually briefed by Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty. He claims that material was leaked from COBRA meetings, and he did not regard them as secure. He cites the leaks from the Brexit planning committee in 2019.
Clark asks him about his tweet that with competent people in charge, Wave One could have probably been avoided. Cummings reiterates the issue of security.
The PM, Cummings says, regarded COVID-19 as a scare story ... Cummings claims the PM said, “it’s swine flu. Don’t worry about it: I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me with it live on TV two people can see there’s nothing to worry about”.
Cummings claims “I am not a technical person or a smart person”. He did not attend all SAGE meetings because of their technical nature. Cummings says he did not understand the documents and modelling presented at SAGE.
Greg Clark talks about Cummings’ blog, which he edited. Cummings claims media claims he edited were false. He quoted extensively from a physics article on ‘gain of function’ in Wuhan Institute of Virology and the BSL3 and BSL4 facilities there. Cummings claims he copied in more extracts from the Bulletin Of Atomic Science. He edited the blog when he returned to work after being ill with COVID-19. He claims that he edited it because he though Trump would make the Wuhan lab hypothesis a big issue in the US Presidential election.
Herd immunity policy
Cummings says there is confusion over use of the term ‘herd immunity’. Essentially, logic of official DHSC plan was this disease is going to spread. Vaccines not going to be relevant in any way shape or form over the relevant time period. We were told vaccines would not be avalauible at any point in 2020. At time, whole plan based on certainty of no vaccines in 2020. Logic was if unconstrained, come in and sharp peak will completely swamp everything, so huge disaster. Logical approach was to delay peak and push it down below capacity for health system
In response to ‘look at what doing in Singapore, Thailand, Korea', DHSC and Whitehall assumed that such approaches won't work here and they will get later peaks; that the British public won’t accept the control measures, so even if it is delayed, the peak will hit in winter when the NHS is always in crisis. So one peak is horrific, but get to some immunity by September before the winter. Only other option was herd immunity by January 2021 after a second peak.
That was why in week of Monday 9 March 2020, people started talking about herd immunity. That was the only assumption until Friday 13 March.
Jeremy Hunt asks about the Matt Hancock quote from 15 March 2020 “we have a plan and herd immunity is not part of it”. DC confirms that this statement was wrong. Cummings says this was the official plan, supported by COBRA documents he’s brought and Govt briefing to senior journalists.
Hunt says minutes of 5 March 2020 SAGE meeting only recommended shielding the elderly. Did Cummings tell PM that advice was wrong? Cummings was himself preparing for lockdown in early March by stockpiling things, but the official Government mindset was not changed.
Cummings says that official advice on mass events like Champions League Final in March was not to cancel them, and might drive people into pubs to watch them.
Towards Plan B
Hunt asks about Plan B on 14 March - was that when he first told PM scientific consensus was wrong. Data scientist Ben Warner was working at Number 10: his brother, who was making a data dashboard for the NHS, came to see Cummings and expressed worry official plan was mad, and was worried could go very wrong. Warner’s brother asked Cummings about developing a plan B.
On Wednesday 11 March at night, Cummings texted PM, CMO and CSO about bringing forward restrictions sooner and changing the strategy.
Hunt asks if there was a group-think in SAGE. Cummings recalls from SAGE fundamental assumption around that second week of March that couldn’t do lockdown as would just get two peaks.
Cummings says that restrictions and lockdowns were not announced as no preparation or plan for lockdown had been made. Cummings wanted announcement ion 12th that people would have to stay at home.
How to avoid the same mistake as this in future, Hunt asks? Cummings emphasises that the secrecy of SAGE was a problem. Cummings believed and Vallance agreed that the code for SAGE modelling should be published so people could play with it.
Hunt asks about the behavioural scientists at SPI-B. Cummings says that this field is full of charlatans. One completely wrong thing in official thinking was British public will not accept a lockdown or East Asian style track and trace system and infringement of liberty. Those two assumptions, central to the official Government plan, were obviously completely wrong, as events subsequently proved. This was raised in PM’s office, and we were pointing to TV screens showing the events in Lombardy Italy. Assumption people don't want to lock down is false and we should abandon it.
JH: PM announced change of tack and minimal lockdown on Monday 16 March 2020. Cummings loops back to 12 March: a surreal days. He messaged PM at 7.48, saying “we’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly shit. We should be telling people 'If you feel ill, stay at home'. We’re looking at 100,000-500,000 deaths. You’ve got to chair cabinet office meetings.” Morning of 12 March, Govt security people tell them US President Trump wants us to join bombing campaign in Middle East today. Alongside this, there's a Times story about the PM’s girlfriend and her dog: PM’s girlfriend wears going completely crackers and asking for action from the press office on the story. A lively day, then.
This ended with Ben Warner and Mark Warner coming in and hitting the panic button with him. At a meeting on 13, Vallance came in and agreed something had gone fundamentally wrong with the wiring.
They then had to develop a Plan B (whiteboard picture published on Cummings’ Twitter feed.
A senior DHSC official said to Perm Sec Helen Macnamara that the long-vaunted pandemic plans did not in fact exist. Macnamara went straight to see Cummings in Downing Street, where he and the Warner brothers were working on Plan B. “I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country’s heading for disaster I think we’re going to kill thousands and thousands of people”. Cummings agreed.
Hunt on 16 we did not close hospitality and ban mass events on Monday 16 March. Did Cummings advise they should close? ‘Yes and no’ he says’. There was no lockdown plan in existence and SAGE had not modelled it. Cummings compares it to Jeff Goldbloom moment in the film ‘Independence Day’
Hunt says Cummings had the most power of anyone in Downing Street. Not until six weeks after first case, 11 and 14 March 2020. Does Cummings not recognise that it was a massive failure on his part as advisor? In retrospect there was no doubt it was a huge failure on my part and I with I had hit the4 mpanic button much earlier than I did. And I wish I had.
Everything we investigated was wrong, bad and terrible (in terms of plans), but I was terrified about pulling the emergency cord to and persuade people to change tack, and I was scared if I do but am wrong, that will be a disaster. I think it’s clear in retrospect, the official plan was wrong, we should have locked down 1st week March at latest. I personally bitterly regret that not until 11/12 did we start the change. On 12 March, 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’.”
I said 'you need to stop using the analogy'. Why? Because chicken pox was not spreading exponentially and killing 100s of 1000s.
Once we did push a change of plan, Cummings says, people approached him warning of the double-peak problem. The whole thing seemed like an out-of-control movie.
Mark Logan MP asks why he didn’t nail an earlier lockdown. Cummings says that he got involved too late. He involved Fields medal-winner Tim Gowers and Demis Hassabis at GoogleDeepMind, whose review of data helped him have the confidence that the plan had to change. It was a classic example of groupthink in action, a closed process. “I got it wrong and I’m very sorry”.
The lack of testing data was a critical disaster to understanding the spread of Covid. In the first week of March 2020, the ‘Reasonable Worst Case Scenario’ was viewed as 20% likely: by mid-March 2020, the RWCS had become the central planning assumption. Experiences overseas were completely disregarded by the system, Cummings adds. In Jan-March, even a few days after 23 March lockdown, almost universal view in Government was that it was inconceivable we would be able to do a Taiwan-type thing. In Taiwan, everything is in English and easily copiable. If we’re not going to do that, we need a really good explanation why not, Cummings thought, but default assumption was ‘this is not East Asia; people here won’t accept it’.
Rosie Cooper asks if there were political barrriers to publishing the papers. Cummings says that Vallance and Whitty agreed there was no reason not to publish them. SAGE didn’t object.
Matt Hancock and DHSC
Rosie Cooper asks about DHSC performance, highlighting Test And Trace and PPE procurement. Asks Cummings to OFSTED rate DHSC and Matt Hancock. Cummings: “I think SOS should have been fired for at least 15-20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly.”
RC: Should people worry about corporate manslaughter charges?
DC doesn’t know about corporate manslaughter. I think SOS is one of those people. I said SOS should be fired; so did Cabinet Secretary; so did many many other people.
RC: What about Test And Trace, and why the incentives for isolating were so fatally weak?
DC: I think that’s right. Think Chancellor did an outstanding job on furlough, created the scheme out of thin air in a few days. Problem on financial incentives to isolate should have been a plan: there was no plan.
The shielding plans was hacked together over two all-nighters.
Did DC hear the PM's alleged 'piled up bodies’ remark? He does not answer this.
DC: lots of smart people working in DHSC but procurement system hopeless and no proper system. On the day the PM tested positive, I was told by Cabinet Office officials that DHSC were turning down ventilators because their price had been marked up. That’s insane. I was having PPE meetings that said delivery will take months because shipping stuff. Why shipping? Because that’s what we always do it. I had to leave meetings, tell people to commandeer planes, go get the PPE (had Trump using CIA trying to gazump people on PPE). Why Cabinet Secteratry rightly said got to divide up SOS job between us - testing, PPE, drugs, because clear DHSC simply totally overwhelmed.
Greg Clark follows up on comments about Matt Hancock lying.
Cummings - numerous examples of this: in the summer, SOS for Health said everybody who needed treatment got it. But he’d been briefed by CMO and CSO this was not true: people were left to die in horrific circumstances.
In Mid-April, just before PM and I got Covid, SOS told us everything is fine on PPE; we’ve got it all covered. When I came back from being ill, almost first meeting was about disaster over PPE. SOS said this is fault of Simon Stevens and Chancellor of the Exchequer: they’ve blocked approval on all sorts of things. This was not my fault. Cummings asked the Cab Sec to investigate if Hancock’s statement were true. CS investigated and said it was not true. Cab Sec said to Cummings “I have lost confidence in the honesty of the SOS”. Cummings has corroborating note on this, and will supply it.
GC: to corroborate, can you set it out in writing. DC promises to.
Cummings says that the Chancellor did not put problems in them way of changing the plan. His main attention was not on economic plans, but on the ruins of the Department Of Health And Social Care.
Cummings “In any sensible rational govt it is completely crazy I should be in such a senior position. I am not that smart; I have not built great things. There was are wonderful people in Civil Sevice and departments, great people doing brilliant things further down the hierarchy, but the leadership, people like me and PM and SOS for Health. Political parties need to ask what gives the british people the electoral choice of Johnson vs Corbyn, and why depts were so particularly out of their depth.
Rebecca Long-Bailey asks specifically about destructive incentives mentioned in his Twitter thread. DC: Politicians are incentivised to play to media, civil servants incentivised to keep heads down. That's not how to get people who understand uncertainty into key jobs. Ability to build things at scale quickly is not valued.
Cummings is clear that Chancellor Rishi Sunak was “completely supportive” of the move to a lockdown on March 2020.
Greg Clark asks if Cummings engaged in unauthorised briefings. Cummings said pre-election he did a lot with the media, post-election, much less. In January 2020, he stopped talking to almost all journalists, but he carried on talking to Laura Kuennsberg for the BBC. So he could guide her on certain big stories. 18 March media leaks of a London-only lockdown: he gave her a categorical denial, and the BBC did not run it. He spoke to her on average maybe every 3-4 weeks.
Cummings adds he did talk to people unauthorised: authorisation from a PM who was already obsessed with the media clearly problematic. Asked to publish texts and emails to media in period from January 2020.
Cummings talks around this: SAGE should be published. Waffles on here about his communications with the media. He has to go through his messages with journalists in reparation for the public inquiry, and will consider what he might release to the committee.
He is asked by Laura Trott about pandemic plans and other risk register plans. Assumption is that it should be open by default, and only closed for very specific things. Process should be opened up to genuine experts.
Nobody is in charge. Were Cummings in charge, he would have nominated a dictator-in-chief with absolute delegated responsibility.. He cites the Spider-Man pointing at another Spider-Man meme.
Gives an example: on discussions about setting up Test And Trace, Cabinet Secretary says ‘Hancock is responsible’, but Hancock is totally incompetent.
The Civil Contingency Secretariat collapsed under the weight of this. Not right people, no data or data architecture. Systems can make people smarter in different ways, but also dumber. The Cabinet Office wiring was wrong.
Once you’re looking at ICU data as your leading indicator, you’re in a world of trouble. He highlights a dashboard created by a brilliant person in NHS England, Nin Pandit, who helped develop a COVID-19 dashboard almost from scratch .
Session resumes with Jeremy Hunt in the chair. He asks about Test And Trace. 14-15 March 2020 was change of plan. Why did SAGE not model Taiwan-style lockdown and testing until May 2020?
Cummings outlines how the new Test And Trace programme was created. He got a brilliant young official working on Brexit and brought in the former head of the SOS to help create a new testing programme
In Cummings’ opinion disastrously, SOS Hancock pledged to do 100,000 tests a day by end of April 2020. Then around 13th, Cummings started getting calls saying Hancock interfering with TAT building process, to try to maximise his chances of hitting that promise. I was phoning round saying 'do not do what Hancock says, build this properly for mediums term'. Hancock was then phoning them and saying ‘down tools and work on my things, and hold back tests so I can hit my 100,000 target’. Hancock should have been fired for that alone. In April we lost a lot of time because of that: because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV say ‘look at me and my target I’ve hit’. It was disgraceful, criminal behaviour that caused serious harm.
That was why Cabinet Secretary and I agreed have to take away from Hancock and make report direct to PM. All bureaucratic infighting in April, PM not back. Huge call for Raab to carve up DHSC, and had to wait till PM back.
People saying got to get grip of Hancock. Once PM back, said need to set up separate agency, build testing system and data system, and new set of tools. Want to use bank, mobile phone data as in Taiwan. Not just testing system, whole data architecture. And huge legal problems, EU GDPR etc.
JH asks about the UK becoming overwhelmed with sheer level going beyond what could practically tested by the PCR capacity.
We were hugely distracted in April by the Hancock pledge, says Cummings.
Hunt: do you blame yourself for it taking two months to get testing going seriously?
Cummings: I was saying from end March if we don’t get PM to fire Hancock, we’re in trouble . We had his constant lying, about PPE on top of the 100,000 tests a day pledge. I went to see the PM with Cabinet Secretary about Hancock. Cab Sec told PM that British political system cannot cope with a Secretary of State who lies repeatedly in meetings. We couldn’t get to grips with Test And Trace until it was out off DHSC.
Cummings outlines the fact that airborne and asymptomatic transmission were unknown for a long time, and it was poorly explained. Danger not explained properly, and incentives to isolate not sorted: these fed into low levels of self-isolation.
If we’d just count-and-pasted what they did in Taiwan and Singapore, that would have been much better.
Dawn Butler asks about NHS and Faculty/Palantir. DC: NHS Simon Stevens had contract to develop an AI data lab in the NHS: by fluke and good luck, they were working in the NHS. Simon Stevens said to Mark Warner ditch the AI stuff, can you help us with Covid data? Warner did, and then via brother got not Cummings to highlight flawed plan. Mark and Nin Pandit worked with team of people and companies to develop or assemble and hack together .
Dawn Butler: concerns about Palantir? Cummings: don’t really know it, but Mark Warner highly ethical and his company were getting hit by Facebook/Cambridge Analytica/referendum/Cummings conspiracy theories, and being blamed for the NHS app. App failed for complicated reasons.
Butler quotes Amnesty international concerns about data. Cummings says would be gobsmacked if non-anonymised data is being shared with those companies. Butler cites and example she had about ordering lasteral flow tests online.
Cummings is sure that Faculty does not have personal data. Butler says Palantir would be more interested in personal data. Cummings’ engagement was around bed use, ventilator availability - nothing to do with personal medical records fo any description.
Butler asks about the Joint Biosecurity Centre. CSO Vallance and CMO Whitty told Cummings that you cannot trust Public Health England with what needs to be built. Amazon role: offered help using their distribution network. Can't remember details.
Graham Stringer: you have described SOS as serial liar disgraceful. Why is he still SOS? Why did PM not take advice? Cummings: PM came close to removing him in April 2020, but fundamentally, he just wouldn’t do it. Not just me: Cabinet Secretary and others were saying this to the PM.
Stringer: any reasons PM kept him in job? Cummings: would be speculation on my part. Certainly no good reason for keeping him.
Stringer: could you not have successfully threatened to the PM to quit, or actually quit? Cummings: yes. I had conversations about quitting and holding press conference warning govt will kill thousands of people, but managed to bounce them into it. Had conversations with others about it.
I should have left then, but people worried about autumn disaster. Told PM before I had operation in July 2020 that will be leaving by 18 December. I can put good teams together, but you are more scared of me controlling the chaos in that way. I can’t work with this chaos and with people like Hancock. PM agreed that he prefers the chaos of govt: PM said that 'chaos means everyone has two look to me to see who’s in charge'. That was the fundamental problem.
Stringer asks about TAT and centralising testing and contact tracing. Cummings: debate over how much decentralisation vs centralisation. Taiwan has v strong local tracing capacity. One problem was we over-centralised in big hubs. Alex Cooper and all did outstanding job within remit, but they were not in charge.
Stringer: TAT report by NAO found it of only marginal benefit because of poor communication between national system and lack of passing information down to local public health teams. Why were local labs and teams not used?
Cummings: part of general procurement horror in DH. Another whole part was fact that LAMP and LFTs could be used: this was realised in March. Should have been possible to have millions of tests available by start September 2020.
Once the PM came back from his illness, said WTF happened with sending people back to care homes infected with COVID-19? Hancock told the PM and Cummings in the Cabinet Office (but not in Cabinet) that people would be tested before they were sent back to the care homes. Quite the opposite happened.
All the government rhetoric was about putting a shield around the care homes. This was complete nonsense. Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent patients infected with covid into care homes.
After April 2020, there was no proper border policy because the PM did not want one. His argument was lockdown terrible mistake, I should have been mayor in ‘Jaws’, tourism industry will die. Combination of Daily Telegraph campaign and influence of backbench Tory MPs.
It would not be fair to blame PM for things before March 2020. I heard him say in Jan/Feb ‘are we not going to be thought mad for not closing the borders?’. After March/April, I heard the PM say we are prioritising the economy.
Cummings is very clear that there was no plan for care homes.
The major change of discharging to care homes was made with no serious plan or evidence. Is that SOS’s responsibility? Cummings: I’d have thought so. Care homes had just fundamentally never been dug into. Why on earth Hancock told us everyone was going to be tested I’ve no idea: but we know it didn’t happen.
Barbara Keeley: looking back of seeding COVID-19 into care homes, was there a sense that care homes didn’t matter, it’s only people at the end of their lives (PM’s alleged ‘only killing 80 year-olds’ quote). PM’s views on Covid and who it kills relevant to September 2020, but not March/April 2020 care homes.
Communications: Cummings claims that some of the people doing commas best in world. But problem was policy. The Prime Minister already is about 1,000 times far too obsessed with the media in a way that undermined him doing his own job. It doesn't matter if you've got great people doing communications if the Prime Minister changes his mind 10 times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day. You're going to have a communications disaster.
The autumn problems were not communications problems: they were about bad decisions and bad leadership. I fundamentally disagreed with the PM on how to communicate with the media.
Luke Evans asks about the Durham lockdown trip. That was, Cummings confirms, a major disaster for govt and for COVID policy. Cummings says that on 28 February, his wife phoned him to report a threatening group outside their London house. A renewed security incident happened in March, and these had driven a decision to move his family out of London. There was pressure from the PM to explain things. It was a disaster and undermined public confidence. Should have sent my family out of London. PM and I got that wrong.
Cummings claims that on the day he drove back to London, he could scarcely walk 50 metres.
It would have been better to explain the problems fully at the time and I’m sorry I didn’t.
Did the Government realise how big a public reaction there was? Yes.
Why didn’t he use Rose Garden press conference to express his concerns?
The PM and I fundamentally didn’t agree about Covid after March/April. PM thought ‘shouldn’t have locked down, should have been the mayor of ‘Jaws’ and I’m prioritising the economy’. On pretty much all the major arguments, I did not win. The PM not listening, his girlfriend was desperate to get rid of me, so I brought in Simon Case.
“We cannot change our mind every time the Telegraph writes an editorial on the subject”.
Hunt asks if he stands by the Barnards Castle eye test story. Cummings claims he could have made up a far better story. He claims that he had been writing a will a few days before.
Hunt: didn’t it seem crazy to go and test your eyes with your wife and child in the car? Cummings: not at the time.
Hunt moves onto vaccines: what was so right about that, where so much else went badly wrong? Cummings: clear responsibility with Kate Bingham, working with Patrick Vallance and building a team who understood what they were doing. She had strength of character not to be pushed around. Reported direct to PM, not to DHSC. Also, told to treat it like wartime thing, ignore rules, any problems come to us and we will bulldoze them out of the way. Low friction for Whitehall.
Conventional wisdom was no vaccines in 2020. I was getting calls saying mRNA vaccines could smash usual process, don’t believe they won’t come. Build the science, manufacturing, supplies, data: Bill Gates and others were saying build all in parallel (Manhattan Project, NASA). Vallance was advising that potential return on investment was so high, even if it fails, still a good gamble. Vallance said must take this out of DHSC (debacle of TAT and PPE). Cabinet Secretary agreed must be taken out of DHSC. Almost no formal meetings and v little discussion. We told PM no alternative, have to do it like this.
Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die. If Number 10 won’t tell the truth now about the official plan which they briefed the media about over a year ago, something seriously wrong.
Should the public inquiry begin now? DC: The longer it’s delayed, the more people will re-write memories, the more documents will be lost. The whole thing will become cancerous.
Zarah Sultana: why is PM avoiding meeting bereaved relatives? I can’t imagine.
ZS: contracts for Tory-linked firms, any concern in Downing Street? In Jan/Feb/Mar, no. Problems mentioned in procurement system. Was about capability and speed. Later on concerns after stories get into the media. We start reading about VIP channels, but not really crossed by radar till May. Not in first phase.
Cummings claims that mRNA vaccine manufacturers created their vaccines within hours in January. He says that the UK and US should have taken those vaccines straight into human challenge trials. He claims that since Kate Bingham left, the normal entropy process set in and the policymaking over reacting to variants.
Greg Hands asks about the briefing against Kate Bingham in September 2020. Was this being done by the PM? Cummings says that his belief is that it emanated from DHSC. Outsiders who came in to help on Test And Trace also got trashed, he says.
Hands says that Number 10’s failure to defend Kate Bingham drove her to threaten to do a broadcast round on her own before any support followed.
Autumn 2020 lockdowns
Cummings summarises meetings held around 13-18 September 2020. 17 Sept Vallance and Whitty came to Number 10 saying think need 2 week plus lockdown. Vallance said R likely to go over 1 if bring schools back in Sept. Many including DC told PM not to tell everyone to go back to work. On Friday 18 long discussion with PM concluded with PM deciding not to do anything. DC warns making same mistake again as March 2020: DC asked for another meeting on Monday 20 Sept, modelling a best guess end of October 2020 scenario. Cab Sec agrees; data team start work.
Data showed passed the point where NHS gets smashed again. PM not persuaded. DC tells him lesson from first time was act hard and early. PM decided no, and said 'hit and hope'.
Cabinet was not involved. No formal Cabinet meeting to discuss (other than a Potemkin one). Been very critical of Hancock, but he agreed with me on locking down in September. Chancellor's view on this was DHSC who want to do that had no plan: just stop everything for two weeks.
Every time PM made decision, Chancellor came up with a competently, diligently made package of saying 'these are the economic consequences'.
Was PM complacent or something more sinister? DC: there is a belief that as he nearly died of it, the PM then took Covid19 seriously. He didn't think in July/Sept 'thank goodness we were pushed into acting'. He blamed DC and others for pushing him in to first lockdown, and vowed not to do so again, in both July and Sept. He thought he'd been gamed in the first lockdown on the numbers, and that the NHS would have coped.
Did you hear him say 'let the bodies pile high' or 'Covid19 only affects 80 year-olds'?. DC: Version of the quote in Sunday Times was not accurate. BBC version accurate, it was in the PM's study. I heard that. That was after 31 October decision to lockdown.
Did DC object to Eat Out To Help Out policy? Didn't pay huge attention to it.
JH on SAGE circuit breaker lockdown: some say Wales tried it and not effective. Did you object to students going back in September? DC: yes, I advised against that. JH: you advised against going back to work. DC: yes.
JH: NHS data shows infection in hospitals. JH: did you advise on getting NHS staff tested weekly - not brought in until end Nov? DC: yes, I wanted daily testing. JH: what delved it in the NHS? DC: in general on LAMP and LFT, incredibly lax attitude, civil service view stick with PCR.
JH: puzzling on testing NHS staff, many calls, including from here, but not even plan announced till November 2020. Why? DC: I was having meetings in April on getting NHS staff as fast as possible. Number 10 pushing it, TAT team pushing for it.
JH: you said should have resigned in Spring poss, def in Sept. Can you see why to some it looks like you resigned after losing a power struggle in Number 10, rather than over mis-handling of Covid19.
JH: not to do with Lee Cain not being appointed to a job?
DC: My resignation was definitely connected to PM's girlfriend trying to overturn various things and get her friends appointed, including overturning a process for one specific role. PM's behaviour was appalling at this time. My relationship with the PM declined after 2nd lockdown in October, which he thought I blamed him for - and I did. The heart of the problem was fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions and push other things through against his wishes. He had the view that he was prime minister and I should just be doing what he wanted me to
Also impact of his girlfriend trying to push me out. I'd already said I would go by Friday 18 September. I regret after the 22 September meeting, I should have gone to PM "I quit in 48 hours. If you lockdown, I will leave quietly, if not, I will hold a press conference and say govt will cost thousands of lives". I should have held that gun to his head. I made a mistake and I should have gambled. I'm sorry about that.
Was PM distracted by financial arrangements? DC: In February, he went on holiday.
DC: I certainly believe SOS used Whitty and Vallance as shields for himself. Matt Hancock planned to blame them if things went wrong. I saw him discuss that with the PM, and I thought it was unacceptable. I think what was not right was SOS trying to use the scientists as shields for himself, and I think that was unethical and wrong.
Ethics of politicians shown in this? DC: mixed bag. I think Chancellor and Dominic Raab did extremely well. Raab in particular not given enough credit. Totally unprecedented, since Churchill in WW2. Raab did outstanding job, Chancellor did outstanding job.
Did PM not sack Hancock because he'd made the same mistakes? DC: I'd been advising PM to sack him on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. PM was also being told, you should not sack him: you should keep him there and sack him come the inquiry. My view was every single week things are going disastrously wrong, and we'll have another disaster in the autumn.
Q: You've accused people of lying: will you publish the evidence today?
DC: I will see what I can publish. Am reluctant to publish private WhatsApp messages. Have to take some legal advice as well, re public inquiry. Former Cabinet Secretary should be here under oath, saying what things got right and wrong.
Q: Do you think Michael Gove culpable for any of the chaos around PPE or response to Covid?
DC: I don't think he had huge amount of responsibility for this. Officials in Cabinet Office have responsibility for this. Every department was running its own procurement operations. Once the chaos became obvious, some was taken out of DHSC and given to Cabinet Office to run.
Q: No burden of blame there?
DC: all probably say made mistakes: I do, and I'm sure Michael would say the same.
There were powerful voices in Treasury warning of economic impact: when I met Chancellor, he was completely supportive, and his chief economic advisor Mike Webb worked with Mark and Ben Warner to develop Plan B. In autumn 2020, the Chancellor was rightly completely sceptical of DHSC plans, which were without any real plan. Moving from Eat Out To Help Out to locking down again. Chx was begging for a consistent plan that we could stick to for more than two days without being driven off course by the Telegraph. Chx never threatened to quit: reports that PM failed to lockdown because Chx threatened to quit.
Q: Why do you think govt blocking public inquiry now?
DC: I think it's terrible they're trying to push this off till after next General Election. Where you have a crisis this bad, got to learn the lessons.
Have to learn from best practice abroad. We have a joke system of test, trace and quarantine.
Q: Do you think Boris Johnson is a fit and proper person to get us through this pandemic?
DC: My view was if we whack it hard now in September, we've got a chance to come out with millions of these tests available, which can help with dealing with variants. If we'd done that in Sept and really got control of it, you wouldn't have seen that big spike. If you'd crushed it in September. James Phillips and Patrick Vallance were saying this in September.
DC: lessons: should have open by default systems and civil servicer open appointments, and need the right incentives. Meeting culture.
Jeremy Hunt: your comments about PM not being a fit and proper person. Your role in this: there was slow development of testing, didn't win argument for second lockdown in Sept. Did you do your job in for and proper way?
DC: I think there are many thousands of people in this country who could do my job better than me.
GC: You could have done more to advance the view you had reached earlier.
DC: That's true.