Dominic Cummings has doubled down on claims that the government was ready to make “herd immunity” its main response to the coronavirus pandemic, in the face of denials from Downing Street and a string of ministers that it was ever official policy.
In a fresh string of tweets ahead of his appearance before a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s former top adviser said that as late as 14 March last year, advisers were “screaming” at the prime minister that the absence of a plan for lockdown would “kill at least 250,000 people and destroy the NHS”.
And he said that in “surreal” scenes two days earlier, the PM received advice that he should go public to explain the herd immunity idea, under which people believed to be vulnerable to serious illness or death would be isolated from society while others were allowed to catch Covid-19 in order to develop the antibodies which would protect them from future attacks.
Mr Cummings said the advice came after the chief executive of the government’s behavioural insights team, Dr David Halpern – a member of the PM’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) – said on 11 March that No 10 was considering a policy of “cocooning” the most vulnerable until herd immunity had been established.
Critics of the UK government’s handling of Covid-19 have pointed to a 13 March interview in which chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said that around 60 per cent of people would need to contract the virus to provide protection to the country and suggested that the government wanted to “allow enough of use who are going to get mild illness to become immune to this to help with the whole-population response which would protect everybody”.
It was not until 16 March that Mr Johnson called for Britons to avoid non-essential contact and stop all unnecessary travel, with a full lockdown coming a week later on 23 March.
But Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson told reporters: “Herd immunity from infection has never been government policy.”
And international trade secretary Liz Truss said: “I attended a number of meetings of cabinet at that time and herd immunity was never the declared strategy.”
Meanwhile, No 10 denied suggestions that Mr Johnson missed five crucial meetings early in the pandemic because he was working on a book about William Shakespeare which he was due to deliver under a contract signed in the hope of funding his expensive divorce from wife Marina Wheeler.
The book, entitled 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 says that “with characteristic curiosity, verve, and wit”, Johnson “reminds us why Shakespeare truly was a genius, a writer not just for his time, but for all time”.
But his official spokesperson 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.
In the latest of a thread of more than 50 tweets issued over the past few days, Mr Cummings 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 infected people would have gained immunity by September for it to fade away during 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 (intensive care unit) care”.
And he added: “True deaths would clearly be much [greater than] 250k cos there would be no NHS for anybody for months”.
The former Vote Leave supremo – who quit Downing Street in November after a bust-up with Johnson – described a meeting on 12 March, the day after Dr Halpern’s comments.
“On 12/3, the most surreal day of 18 months in Gvt, it was argued to the PM that a/ individual isolation be delayed (‘we’re not ready’), b/ we might not do household quarantine *at all*, c/ given Halpern’s interview on 11th, the PM should publicly explain the ‘herd immunity’ plan,” wrote Mr Cummings.
“It was never the policy of this government,” the energy minister said.
“Boris Johnson was very clear that the only thing that mattered was that we make sure that we saved lives and we keep our NHS safe and able to function, not only to protect those who might get Covid but also everybody else.”
Responding to footage of Prof Vallance played by hosts Susanna Reid and Bill Turnbull, Ms Trevelyan insisted that the scientific adviser was talking about herd immunity being “one of the potential tools in the armoury” and not the official policy.
But one viewer wrote on Twitter that she was “lying through her teeth”, while another said she looked “pretty ridiculous in the face of the Vallance footage”.
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