Boris Johnson’s handling of Covid crisis slammed by former top advisers

Ex-PM thought coronavirus was ‘nature’s way of dealing with old people’, inquiry hears, as bereaved relatives attack ‘psychotic’ comments

Kate Devlin,Archie Mitchell
Tuesday 31 October 2023 21:25 GMT
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Covid inquiry roundup: Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings provide worrying insight into No 10

Boris Johnson’s one-time closest advisers lined up to slam his leadership during the Covid pandemic as he was blasted for his handling of the crisis.

In an extraordinary day of evidence at the Covid-19 inquiry, it was revealed that the former prime minister’s chief aide, Dominic Cummings, had described the constant change of strategy as “exhausting” and branded his cabinet “useless f***pigs” in explosive WhatsApp messages.

Mr Cummings said Mr Johnson did not think Covid was a “big deal”, while the hearing was also told that the then PM was “obsessed” with the idea that older people should be allowed to catch the virus and accept their “fate” in order to keep the economy open.

It came as the inquiry heard that:

  • Mr Johnson believed Covid was “a hoax” and “pathetic”, no worse than swine flu, and that it was nature’s way of dealing with the elderly
  • No 10 staff had derided the dithering PM as “the trolley”, as he changed direction so often
  • Mr Johnson took the “pretty insane” decision to go on holiday in February 2020, one month before lockdown
  • There was “no plan” for how to protect vulnerable people from the virus
  • Mr Johnson admitted there had been a “totally disgusting orgy of narcissism by a government that should be solving a national crisis”
  • Mr Cummings said in a message that he wanted to “personally handcuff” the UK’s most powerful female mandarin, as he called her a “c***”
  • In November 2020 Mr Cummings blocked Mr Johnson on WhatsApp after the then PM pleaded for briefings against his government to stop

In messages Mr Cummings sent to the Downing Street communications chief at the time, Lee Cain, at the height of the pandemic, he criticised the then prime minister’s handling of the crisis.

He said he was “exhausted” trying to explain things to Mr Johnson, and that the PM had gone “back to Jaws mode w***”, a reference to the mayor in Steven Spielberg’s film who wants to keep the beaches open despite the danger of a shark attack.

Mr Cummings told the inquiry that Mr Johnson had been described as an “indecisive trolley” by “pretty much everyone” because of his constant changes in direction, and that much of the government was a “nightmare” to work with during the pandemic.

And he revealed how the then PM had considered Covid to be “another swine flu... [or a] rubbish media hoax”.

Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings leaves the Covid inquiry after giving evidence on Tuesday

Mr Cummings said the prevailing view at the start of the pandemic was that lockdown was a “completely crazy idea” and that dithering in No10 delayed the UK’s first round.

He said that No 10 was “completely unsuitable’’ for handling the crisis “in every way”, and that the Cabinet Office was “terrifyingly s***”.

He criticised Mr Johnson’s decision to go on holiday just a month before the national lockdown as “pretty insane”, but said he did not urge him to return because he feared that the PM would make the situation worse.

In another blow to Mr Johnson, Mr Cain told the inquiry that Covid was the “wrong crisis” for the former prime minister’s “skill set”. Mr Johnson had preferred to stay in his study rather than attend the government’s emergency Cobra meetings about the pandemic, the inquiry heard.

A series of foul-mouthed messages from Mr Cummings also laid bare the chaos at the heart of Mr Johnson’s government during the Covid crisis, and the disdain the chief aide had for those running it.

WhatsApp messages and emails show he called Mr Johnson’s cabinet “useless f***pigs”, “c***s” and “morons” – while former health secretary Matt Hancock was branded a “proven liar”.

Calling for a cabinet reshuffle amid fears of a second wave of the virus, he warned Mr Johnson in August 2020: “We face going into autumn crisis with the c*** [Mr Hancock] in charge of NHS still.”

Boris Johnson was slammed by his former advisers for his chaotic handling of the pandemic

Apologising for his choice of words, Mr Cummings admitted his language was “appalling” but said he was reflecting “a widespread view” that senior politicians were “dealing with this crisis extremely badly”.

The inquiry also saw diary entries from Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser during the pandemic, in which he wrote that Mr Johnson had suggested the virus was “nature’s way of dealing with old people” as he argued against locking down.

Sir Patrick wrote in August 2020 that Mr Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and [keeping] the economy going”.

Four months later, describing a series of “bonkers” exchanges, he wrote that Mr Johnson “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.’ Wants to rely on polling.”

Messages shown to the inquiry also revealed that in October 2020, Mr Johnson emphasised the need to “recalibrate” away from a nationwide lockdown because the people dying were mainly elderly.

He messaged: “The median age is 82-81 for men [and] 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer.” He added: “I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff.”

The inquiry heard that Rishi Sunak ignored advice from government scientists that low-paid workers should be given financial support that allowed them to isolate.

Mr Cummings also confirmed that Mr Johnson had said during a meeting with Mr Sunak, who was chancellor at the time: “We are killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large numbers of people will die. Why are we destroying the economy for people who will die soon anyway?”

Cummings used ‘revolting’ language to describe cabinet ministers during Covid pandemic

Brenda Doherty, whose mother died aged 82 in March 2020 after contracting Covid-19 in hospital, said reading Mr Johnson’s “psychotic” comments felt like being “punched in the stomach” and showed he had a “callous and brutal attitude”.

Mr Cummings also faced scrutiny of his own, when he was pressed about messages that referred to the deputy cabinet secretary at the time as “that c***” and talked of putting her in handcuffs.

In expletive-laden WhatsApps about Helen MacNamara in 2020, he said that if he had to deal with her “bulls***” again, he would “personally handcuff her and escort her from the building”. He also talked about “dodging stilettos from that c***”.

Challenged about the messages, Mr Cummings insisted he was “not misogynistic”, saying “I was much ruder about men than I was about Helen,” though he admitted his language was “deplorable”.

Cummings said ‘pretty much everyone’ called Boris Johnson ‘the trolley’ during pandemic

The inquiry also heard how Mr Johnson had described the infighting surrounding Mr Cummings’s eventual exit from No 10 as a “disgusting orgy of narcissism”.

In a final WhatsApp message, the then prime minister hit out at suggestions that his wife Carrie was responsible for briefing against Mr Cummings, who had left No 10 two days earlier.

Mr Johnson wrote: “She hasn’t briefed anyone and my instructions to all were to shut the f*** up. How is any of us supposed to know where these briefings come from? Look at the claims made on behalf of allies of Lee [Cain] and Dom, that I’m out in six months, that I can’t take decisions, that Carrie is secretly forging lockdown policy, and about a billion equally demented claims.”

He added: “This is a totally disgusting orgy of narcissism by a government that should be solving a national crisis.”

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