Downing Street denies Boris Johnson missed Covid meetings to write Shakespeare book

Former adviser Dominic Cummings set to give evidence to MPs on early response to pandemic

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Monday 24 May 2021 17:02 BST
Today's daily politics briefing

Downing Street has denied suggestions that Boris Johnson missed crucial meetings early in the coronavirus pandemic because he was working on a book he had promised to write about William Shakespeare.

And the prime minister’s official spokesman rejected claims from former Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings that the government’s initial response to the outbreak was to seek safety through “herd immunity”, telling reporters: “Herd immunity has never been government policy.”

In a fresh stream of tweets ahead of his appearance before a House of Commons committee on Wednesday, Mr Cummings today said that as late as 14 March last year, advisers were “screaming” at Mr Johnson that the absence of a plan for lockdown would “kill at least 250,000 people and destroy the NHS”.

He published graphs which he said showed that the official “optimal” plan in early March was to go for a “single peak strategy” which would see coronavirus cases soar during the spring and early summer. Under this scenario, it was thought that enough people would have gained immunity by catching the virus and recovering for it to fade away by the autumn, he said.

But he said this “Plan A” was ditched because “it became clear the official system had given no thought to all the second-order effects of 250k dying, almost all without ICU care”.

And he added: “True deaths would clearly be much [greater than] 250k cos there would be no NHS for anybody for months”.

Reports have suggested that Mr Johnson is worried that Mr Cummings will claim on Wednesday that the PM missed five meetings of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee early in the pandemic because he was under pressure to deliver a book on Shakespeare in line with a contract he had signed.

But his official spokesperson today told reporters he was “not aware” of Mr Johnson doing any work on the book since becoming PM.

And asked if it was the reason for his absence from the Cobra meetings, the spokesperson said: “No.”

Despite remaining at country retreat Chequers for the meetings in January and February 2020, Mr Johnson had been “leading the response throughout”, said the spokesperson, adding that it was not unusual for Cobra meetings to be chaired by a minister other than the PM.

The spokesperson added: “Herd immunity from infection has never been government policy.

“At all times we have been guided by the data and the latest evidence we have had through this coronavirus pandemic.

“We set out our initial plan, which was published on March 3 and presented at press conferences.

“As our understanding of the virus progressed, more data became available, it was clear that a national lockdown was needed to suppress the curve, save lives and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed.”

Asked if Mr Johnson believed Mr Cummings was a liar, the spokesman said: “I haven’t asked him that question.”

Mr Johnson’s book Shakespeare: The Riddle of Genius is advertised on the Amazon website with a publication date of 31 March 2022.

The digital marketplace describes the volume as being written by “the inimitable, mop-headed, New York Times-bestselling British journalist and politician”.

And it states: “With characteristic curiosity, verve, and wit, Boris Johnson sets out to determine whether the Bard is indeed all he s cracked up to be, and if so, why and how...

“In this joyful, fascinating book, Johnson reminds us why Shakespeare truly was a genius, a writer not just for his time, but for all time.”

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