Dominic Cummings evidence live: Latest updates as former PM aide expected to land more blows on Government

Downing Street is braced for more explosive revelations from the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings as he makes a much-anticipated appearance before MPs today.

Mr Cummings has been vocal in his condemnation of Boris Johnson, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, and others since leaving Government after a behind-the-scenes power struggle in November.

Previously, Mr Cummings set out his criticisms of the Government’s approach to the pandemic in a thread of messages on Twitter, claiming the original response to the coronavirus outbreak was to pursue a strategy of “herd immunity”.

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He has now begun to give evidence at the hearing. Follow the latest below.

Dominic Cummings giving evidence

PM’s former adviser Dominic Cummings gives evidence on the government’s handling of the pandemic

Last updated: Wednesday, 26 May, 2021, 10:57

Cummings to give evidence at 9:30am

Good morning. Today looks set to be a one to remember in Westminster, as Dominic Cummings makes his return to Westminster to give evidence to a joint inquiry into the government’s handling of Coronavirus.

As readers who spend any time on Twitter will likely know, Cummings has been giving some fairly detailed hints as to the thrust of his testimony today. He is expected to level a whole host of accusations at the government and in particular Boris Johnson’s Downing Street operation, including claims the PM wanted to be given Covid live on TV at one point, and that he did in fact utter the infamous line that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than implement a third lockdown.

ITV’s Robert Peston reported yesterday that Cummings has another alleged quote from the PM which could cause issues; the former adviser says Johnson rejected calls for a third lockdown, saying “Covid is only killing 80-year-olds”.

While the session is sure to make excellent viewing, there are many who doubt Cummings’ claims and his intent, and perhaps not without good reason.

While claiming through his seemingly endless Twitter thread that he is here to shine a light on the government’s failings throughout the pandemic - and in particular, that the government enacted a herd immunity strategy in the early days - evidence has come to light which suggests Cummings was very much a part of the problem.

Playbook reports that a cache of leaked Whatsapp messages are doing the rounds in Westminster which show Cummings urging senior minsters not to admit that herd immunity was the policy, from back when he was still in Downing Street.

Join us at 9:30 when the session is due to begin for live updates

How will the session work?

This morning’s select committee hearing could be a record-breaker, as it is set to go on for several hours.

The proceeding will be split into four sections, with a cross-party and cross-committee selection of MPs firing questions at Cummings for roughly an hour on each subject area.

Part one will relate to pandemic preparedness and the first lockdown, while the second part will cover non-pharmaceutical interventions, including test and trace.

It is expected that this section will also feature questions on Cummings' infamous trip to Barnard Castle during the height of lockdown restrictions, and whether that had detrimental effects on adherence to the rules.

The third part of the session look at the vaccination programme, while the last part will look into arguably the most controversial element of the inquiry; the decision making around second lockdown. This means that, if for some reason you can’t stay with us throughout the whole marathon session, you can check back in at the points you’re most interested in.

9:30 - Pandemic preparedness and first lockdown

10:30 - Non pharmaceutical interventions and the Barnard Castle trip

11:30 - Vaccination programme

12:30 - The second lockdown

If you’re with us live, the joint session of the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee is now underway. with chair of the Science and Technology Committee Greg Clark, explaining how the session will work.

He welcomes Dominic Cummings, who appears in person at the committee. Clark’s first questions relates to Cummings’ claim during the infamous Downing Street garden press conference almost a year ago to the day that he had been aware of the risk of highly infectious diseases for years before the pandemic broke out.

Cummings says the, “truth is senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this. When the public needed us most the government failed, and I’d like to say to the families of all those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made and my own mistakes in that.”

Also says “many institutions” failed in the early stages of the pandemic, but highlights the decision by Taiwanese government to ‘hit the panic button’ around New Year 2020.

Government was “not on a war-footing” in February

Asked whether Covid was treated as the most important issue on the government’s agenda back in January, Cumming says “in no way shape or form” did the government act like Covid was “the most important thing” in January, or in February he says.

Asked what proportion of his time was devoted to it in those months, he says “not much” in January, but “a lot more” in February. He says it made up less than half of his time before a cabinet reshuffle on 12 February, and more than half afterwards.

He says: “The government itself and Number 10 was not operating on a war-footing in February on this in any way shape or form, lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February.”

Cummings “not sure” if he attended COBRA meetings in February

Cummings says he can’t remember if he attended COBRA meetings in February, and says they weren’t always particularly useful.

He says he was briefed one-to-one by senior scientists, partly because he felt COBRA meetings were likely to leak.

PM thought Covid was ‘next swine flu’ and wanted Chris Whitty to inject him with it live on TV

Strong line of questioning from one of the committee chairs, Greg Clark.

He asks Cummings: “You said in one of your Tweets this week, that if we’d had competent people in charge we probably could have avoided lockdown one, but you and the prime minister didn’t consider yourselves to be relevant to that meeting, was there another meeting or were you not the most competent or relevant people?”

Cummings: “Lots of COBRA meetings are quite formulaic, in terms of the prime minister the basic thought was that - in February the prime minister regarded this as a scare story, he described it as the new swine flu”.

Greg Clark: “Did you tell him it wasn’t?”

Cummings: “Certainly, but the view of various officials inside number 10 was, if we have the prime minister chairing COBRA meetings and he just tells everyone ‘this is swine flu, don’t worry about it, I’m going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on tv with Coronavirus so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of’ that would not help serious planning”.

Cummings says he is “not a technical person” and “not a smart person"

Asked whether he routinely attended SAGE meetings, Cummings says he could have gone but delegated this to an official.

“Lots of SAGE meetings are quite technical, involving technical questions, I’m not a technical person, I’m not a smart person. I couldn’t understand a lot of the models being discussed”

Greg Clark interjects with a slight smile: “Anyone reading your blog would say that you had a facility with technical terms and discussions”

Cummings: “That’s wrong. That’s not a good description of me at all”

Asked about why he changed a post on his blog a year after it had been published to include direct references to Coronavirus, Cummings plays down the media reports and says it is untrue to say he changed it. After explanation, becomes clear his argument is that he did, in fact, alter a blog post to include new references to Coronavirus, however he did not change anything he had written himself, but simply added further quotes from a report he was referencing.

Committee chair Greg Clark expresses his “surprise” that Cummings had time to reflect on and amend a blog-post from a year earlier during a period in April 2020 when he was tasked with dealing with the pandemic.

Questioning moves on to herd immunity

We are moving into the next phase of questioning now, relating to herd immunity

Cummings says nobody “wanted” herd immunity, but it was regarded as an unavoidable fact which would either be achieved after a single wave in spring or later, during winter, when it would lead to even more deaths.

He also says vaccines could have been rolled out “much quicker” than they were.

Mass events in March

At a SAGE meeting on 5 March, when the only measures recommended were ‘shielding the vulnerable and elderly’, Jeremy Hunt asks whether Cummings advised PM that SAGE was wrong?

“No, I didn’t. I was ringing increasing alarm bells in the first half of March, but... I had a sort of... my thought process was, I started getting people coming to me from around the 25th February saying, very smart people, saying ‘America is completely screwing this up, you should be really aggressive, don’t listen to the people saying there’s no alternative to this, I personally am starting to take preparations and buying things, we’re going to have to lockdown’” Cummings says he was “torn” because in the first 10 days of March he was being told it was going wrong, but he was concerned about ‘ditching the official plan’ and was reluctant to do so.

Says official advice at the time of Champions League match in Liverpool and Cheltenham - which both had large numbers of fans in attendance - was that it wouldn’t make a difference to stop mass-events, or that doing so might even have a negative impact as it “might push people into pubs”.

He says: “No one in the official system in the department for health drew the obvious conclusion, which was, shouldn’t we be shutting the pubs as well?”

Cummings on herd immunity

Here’s the full passage of Cummings giving background on the herd immunity question,

“Essentially the logic of the official plan from the Department of Health was that this disease is going to spread, vaccines are not going to be relevant in any way, shape or form over the relevant time period, we were told it was essentially a certainty that there would be no vaccines available in 2020, something else which turned out to be completely wrong because, as I think we’ll come onto, it actually turns out we could’ve done vaccines much faster than happened.

“But at the time the whole plan was based on the assumption that it was a certainty that there would be no vaccines in 2020. So the logic was you can either have … if it’s unconstrained it will come in and there will be a sharp peak like that, and it will completely swamp everything and huge disaster.

“The logical approach therefore is to introduce measures which delay that peak arriving and which push it down below the capacity of the health system.”

He said that in response to questions over the lockdowns being enforced across Wuhan and Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, it was assumed the measures “won’t work for them and they will all have second peaks later on”.

“Secondly, it’s inconceivable that the British public are going to accept Wuhan-style measures here,” he added.

“Even if we therefore suppress it completely all you’re going to do is get a second peak in the winter when the NHS is already every year under pressure, so we only actually have a real choice between one peak and herd immunity by September – terrible but then you’re through it by the time the next winter comes – if you try and flatten it now the second peak comes up in winter time that’s even worse.

“So, horrific as it looks in the summer, the numbers will be even worse if this happens in October, November, December-time.”

Cummings “completely baffled” by No10 herd immunity denials

Dominic Cummings said he is “completely baffled” as to why No 10 has tried to deny that herd immunity was the official plan early last year.

Cummings says belief that public wouldn’t back lockdowns or test and trace were “completely central” and “completely wrong"

Cummings: “One of the critical things that was completely wrong in the whole official thinking in SAGE and Department of Health in February and March was, the British public will not accept a lockdown, secondly the British public will not accept what was thought of as an East-Asian style track and trace type system and the infringements of liberty around that.

“Those two assumptions were completely central to the official plan and were both obviously completely wrong.

“In the first half of March this was raised sometimes in the PMs office and me and others were literally pointing at the TV screen of Lombardy, saying ‘Look at what is happening in Lombardy, we are getting text messages on our phones from out own families saying what’s going on? This assumption that the public aren’t that frightened and don’t want to have a lockdown is false and we should abandon it’.”

Cummings texted PM on 12 March that Cabinet Office was “terrifyingly sh*t"

Cummings says he sent a message to the PM at 7:28 on Thursday 12 March, saying “We’ve got big problems coming, the cabinet office is terrifyingly shit, no plans, totally behind the pace, we must announce today not next week, if you feel ill with cold or flu stay home. Some around the system want delay because they haven’t done the work. We must force the pace. Looking at 100,000 to 500,000 deaths between optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. You’ve got the chair the daily meeting in the Cabinet Room not COBRA” - because the COBRA system, Cummings explains, “didn’t work”.

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