Ex-aide brands UK's Johnson 'unfit' to be PM over Covid failures

AFP
London, United Kingdom Published: May 26, 2021, 09:45 PM(IST)

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (file photo). Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Covid-19 has claimed nearly 128,000 lives in Britain the fifth-highest official death toll in the world while the virus is noted on more than 152,000 UK death certificates, in a sign of its true impact

The British government "disastrously" failed people by repeatedly mishandling its response to the coronavirus pandemic, ultimately showing Prime Minister Boris Johnson is "unfit for the job", his former top adviser Dominic Cummings told lawmakers on Wednesday.

In an excoriating account of the government's response to the crisis, Cummings -- the arch strategist who masterminded Brexit -- said senior ministers and officials pursued the wrong policy at its outset.

But instead of learning from mistakes, which he argued cost thousands of lives and worsened the economic toll, he said Johnson then ignored scientists' advice to introduce a second lockdown and instead lived "in hope".

Covid-19 has claimed nearly 128,000 lives in Britain -- the fifth-highest official death toll in the world -- while the virus is noted on more than 152,000 UK death certificates, in a sign of its true impact.

"The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis," Cummings told a parliamentary committee.

He described political leadership during the crisis as "lions led by donkeys over and over again". 

"When the public needed us most the government failed," he said, apologising "to all the families of those who died unnecessarily".

In response, Johnson told parliament he took "full responsibility" but insisted decision-making during the pandemic had been "appallingly difficult". 

"I maintain my point that the government acted throughout with the intention to save life... in accordance with the best scientific advice."

'No plan'
The testimony of Cummings, the strategist behind the "Leave" campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, was much anticipated after he began attacking Johnson's coronavirus policies and financial dealings in recent weeks.

During more than seven hours of testimony, he conceded "many, many institutions failed around the world" in their initial response to the crisis.

But he blasted senior UK officials and politicians for initially missing the seriousness of the situation, and once they did grasp it, of inept decision-making, comparing their handling of the pandemic to an out-of-control shopping trolley he was desperately trying to steer. 

Cummings said Johnson initially branded coronavirus "a scare story", was consumed by issues in his private life and too reluctant to impose a lockdown in March 2020 because of the economic impact.

He said officials were guilty of "catastrophic" group-think, pursuing a haphazard strategy of so-called herd immunity before belatedly abandoning it when the likely death toll became clear.

Britain's top civil servant even suggested to Johnson in mid-March that he encourage gatherings to spread infections and build immunity, according to Cummings.

Comparing officials' eventual realisation of the situation to a scene in the movie "Independence Day" after an alien invasion, Cummings said the deputy cabinet secretary conceded to him that "there is no plan, we're in huge trouble".

'Unfit'
But instead of being humbled by early setbacks, Johnson failed to learn lessons from delays and indecisions, Cummings said, confirming BBC reports that the British leader said he would rather let "bodies pile high" than lock down again.

"His argument was 'I should've been the mayor (in) 'Jaws' and kept the beaches open' -- that's what he said on many many occasions," he said.

By the time Johnson did order another lockdown in late October, Cummings said their relationship had broken down. "I regarded him as unfit for the job," he added.

Cummings repeatedly singled out Health Secretary Matt Hancock for criticism, alleging he lied to colleagues on numerous occasions and could have been fired for "at least 15 or 20 things", and claiming he wanted scientists to take the blame.

Cummings was appointed chief adviser by Johnson when he took power in July 2019, helping him to secure a thumping election victory that December.

But his frequent clashes with colleagues are said to have led to persistent tensions and he left government a year later.

The 49-year-old was criticised for undermining the government's lockdown message early in the pandemic when he went on a lengthy cross-country journey with his family.

During his evidence, Cummings said security concerns around his London home had been an additional, previously undisclosed, factor in the decision.

Despite Johnson riding high after successful local election results in England this month, Cummings' testimony could refocus attention on his government's patchy performance responding to the pandemic.

But Johnson's government has also overseen a successful vaccination drive, having offered more than two-thirds of adults at least one dose.

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