Dominic Cummings blasts Matt Hancock’s department as a ‘smoking ruin’ at height of Covid crisis

Former adviser says vaccine programme has only been successful because the Department of Health wasn’t put in charge

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Wednesday 17 March 2021 20:48
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Dominic Cummings says Department of Health was ‘smoking ruin’ at start of Covid crisis

Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has claimed the department of health was a “smoking ruin” while trying to run key parts of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus vaccination programme only succeeded because it was taken away from Matt Hancock’s department, Mr Cummings said as he called for an urgent inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic .

The department’s initial response to the crisis had been an “absolute total disaster”, he said as he gave evidence to MPs.

Mr Cummings, who left Downing Street last year after losing a power struggle at the heart of government, was scathing about what he said were failings in the ability to procure personal protective equipment.

In the wake of that disaster it was a deliberate decision to split off the vaccine programme, he told members of the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

“It is not coincidental that we had to take it out of the Department of Health. We had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister,” he said.

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“In spring 2020, you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that. You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics.”

“We also had the EU proposal, which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail – a debacle.

“Therefore, Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me and some others said ‘obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister.’”

Mr Cummings added that there was a need for an “urgent” and “very, very hard look” at what went wrong and why.

Mr Cummings also suggested the recent row over the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe showed the benefits of leaving the EU, even though decisions to suspend the use of the jab have been taken by individual member states.

During his evidence session Mr Cummings also revealed he outlined conditions in a “deal” with Mr Johnson before entering No 10, including a doubling of the science budget and a mandate to reform the “disaster zone” of Whitehall.

And he claimed he had told the prime minister last July that he would leave by 18 December at the latest, adding that his departure from No 10 was “not exactly as it appeared”. 

He was giving evidence on the multimillion pound Advance Research and Invention Agency (Aria), an independent body of which he is regarded as an architect.

Downing Street defended the response of the Department of Health and Social Care to the coronavirus pandemic after Cummings’s comments

The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “Covid challenged health systems around the world. From the outset, it was always our focus to protect the NHS and save lives.

“I would point to what was achieved last year in terms of establishing one of the biggest diagnostic networks in UK history, in terms of increasing the number of tests we are able to undertake every day.

“We have procured over 9 million items of PPE, we have established the NHS test and trace system which has contacted millions of people and asked them to isolate.

“DH [the Department of Health] and the NHS were central to the rollout of the vaccination programme.”

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