LONDON — Dominic Cummings, a former top aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, slammed the British leader for dismissing the coronavirus as "just a scare story" in February 2020, for going "on holiday for two weeks" as the pandemic was getting underway and for delaying lockdown decisions in a way that contributed to "tens of thousands" of avoidable deaths.
Cummings also confirmed that Johnson, when declaring a second national lockdown in October, said he would rather see "bodies pile high" than go into a third.
Johnson had previously denied the statement. And Wednesday, the prime minister rejected the suggestion that his inaction led to needless deaths. "We have at every stage tried to minimize loss of life, to save lives, to protect the [National Health Service], and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can," he said during his weekly appearance in the House of Commons.
Britain has been hit hard by the coronavirus. More than 128,000 people have died, and at one point the country had the highest covid-19 death rate in Europe.
Cummings, who was dubbed "Boris's Brain" before falling out with the prime minister, was Wednesday making a much anticipated appearance before two parliamentary committees investigating the government's handling of the pandemic.
The hearing went for more than seven hours. But Cummings may have considered it less of a grilling and more of a moment in the sun.
This is a man who, when he was booted out of the administration in November, eschewed the discreet back entrance of 10 Downing Street and instead strolled out the front door, carrying a cardboard box of his things, in front of a bank of photographers.
Widely cast as a sort of Machiavellian mastermind, Cummings is considered the architect behind the successful 2016 Brexit campaign. (Benedict Cumberbatch starred as Cummings in the 2019 movie “Brexit.”) He is also credited with Johnson’s thumping election victory in 2019.
And as Johnson’s chief strategist, he was part of an inner circle of policymakers during the early months of the pandemic.
“Of all the opponents the Conservatives could have, Cummings is probably the most dangerous because he knows the inner workings of No. 10,” said Jonathan Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool. “He knows where all the bodies are. And he sees this committee appearance as a vehicle for revenge.”
Lawmakers will have to consider that agenda in assessing Cummings’s credibility.
They will also have to consider his contribution to the collapse of public trust in the government last year.
Cummings was accused of violating strict lockdown rules when he took a 260-mile family road trip across the country, from London to Durham, while he and his wife had the coronavirus. He later explained a visit to Barnard Castle, another 25 miles away, as an effort to test his eyesight.
When questioned Wednesday, he said he had been receiving threats and needed to get out of London.
The Barnard Castle episode proved hugely damaging to the Johnson administration. Many people complained about the lack of fair play. They said there was one set of requirements for policymakers such as Cummings and a different set for everyone else. Police said it made lockdown rules harder to enforce.
Since then, though, the government has seen its support rebound, thanks to a successful vaccine rollout. Johnson’s Conservative Party just won handily in local elections. And so it remains unclear whether Cummings will be able to land any serious blows.
But he certainly tried.
Cummings said that it was "crackers" Johnson was in charge and that he considered the prime minister "unfit for the job."
At one point, he said, Johnson toyed with the idea of being injected with coronavirus live on television to show it wasn't a big threat.
Cummings likened Johnson’s Downing Street office in mid-March to “a scene from ‘Independence Day,’ with Jeff Goldblum saying, ‘The aliens are here, and your whole plan is broken, and you need a new plan.’ ”
Cummings insisted that the government intended to pursue “herd immunity” at the beginning of the pandemic. He claimed that the department of health and the government’s scientific advisers assumed, wrongly, that the public wouldn’t tolerate a lockdown, mass testing or contact tracing.
At least some government scientists talked openly about herd immunity at the time, along with concern about the potential for lockdown fatigue. But since then, the official line from Johnson’s government is that it never entertained achieving population immunity by allowing the virus to spread. And on Wednesday, scientific advisers said they were never asked to weigh in on lockdowns.
Cummings further asserted that nursing home outbreaks were enabled by patients being sent home without testing, in the interest of freeing up hospital beds.
“All the government rhetoric was, ‘We put a shield around care homes and blah blah.’ It’s complete nonsense,” Cummings said. “Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with covid back to the care homes.”
For that and other “criminal, disgraceful behavior,” Cummings said Health Secretary Matt Hancock should be fired.
A spokesman for Johnson said he had full confidence in the health secretary.
Along with savaging his old employer and many of his colleagues, Cummings apologized to the British people for the government's pandemic failings.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” Cummings said. “I’d 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.”
An advocacy group for bereaved families, which has been calling for a public inquiry, tweeted: “The evidence from Cummings is clear, that the government’s combination of grotesque chaos and uncaring flippancy is directly responsible for many of our loved ones not being with us today.”
“That this information is being unveiled in a pantomime-style spat between Cummings and Johnson, littered with independence day, Jeff Goldblum and spiderman references, is utterly inappropriate and makes this even more appalling,” the group added.
Although Wednesday’s hearing had been much hyped, and some reporters had predicted that Johnson’s fate would rest on Cummings’s evidence, many of the revelations merely added detail to what had been known.
Tonge, the politics professor, said he was somewhat skeptical about how much difference Cummings’s testimony will make.
Johnson has had a “highly controversial stewardship during the pandemic, and he’s controversial in other matters,” Tonge said. He pointed out that the prime minister still had “serious questions with potentially legal implications” to answer over the refurbishment of his four-bedroom Downing Street apartment.
Nonetheless, Tonge said, Johnson “appears like Teflon Man — nothing seems to stick.”