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Boris Johnson 'unfit' to be PM: ex-adviser Cummings

May 26, 2021

The former chief adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the government failed to take adequate action to combat the COVID crisis. The UK has one of the worst official COVID death tolls in the world.

Dominic Cummings talking before MPs
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's ex-top aide, testified to British lawmakers about the government's pandemic responseImage: House of Commons/empics/picture-alliance

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is "unfit for the job," his his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.

Cummings was speaking to MPs at Westminster to answer questions on how the government handled the coronavirus pandemic and the successive lockdowns to curb the spread of infections.

Cummings told lawmakers that this relationship with Johnson had taken a "terrible dive."

"The Prime Minister knew I blamed him for the whole situation and I did," he said. 

"By October 31 our relations were essentially already finished, the fact that his girlfriend also wanted rid of me was relevant but not the heart of the problem," the former Brexit campaigner said, referring to the prime minister's fiancée Carrie Symonds.

"The heart of the problem was fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions and push other things through against his wishes.

"He had the view that he was Prime Minister and I should just be doing what he wanted me to."

UK failed the British public

The United Kingdom government failed in its duties toward the British public in its response to the coronavirus crisis, a former chief adviser to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told lawmakers on Wednesday in a televised hearing.

"The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, 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 like this," Dominic Cummings said, adding that government inaction had cost unnecessary lives.

What else did Cummings say?

"When the public needed us most, the government failed," Cummings said before members of parliamentary committees probing the government's response to the pandemic.

"I think it's obvious that the Western world, including Britain, just completely failed to see the smoke until the alarm bells in January; there's no doubt about it," he added.

Cummings went on to say that British officials had failed to learn from experiences with COVID in Asia and claimed they had resisted new ideas from young scientists.

He also described the British government as being overly secretive and bureaucratic and said that domestic media had not subjected its policies to any real independent scrutiny.

And he slammed the government for its lack of preparation.

UK fights spread of COVID variant

"Number 10 was not operating on a war footing in February on [COVID] in any way, shape or form. Lots of key people were literally skiing in the middle of February," he said, using a nickname for the prime minister's office at Number 10 Downing Street.

"It wasn't until the last week of February that there was really any sort of sense of urgency I would say [...] in terms of Number 10 and Cabinet," he added.

Johnson's spokesman on Tuesday denied such criticism, saying that "at all times we have been guided by the data and the latest evidence we had."

Criticism of Boris Johnson

As had been expected by many analysts, Cummings was unsparing in his criticism of the prime minister.

He accused Johnson of downplaying the dangers of the illness.

"The basic thought was that in February the prime minister regarded this as just a scare story [...] he described it as the new swine flu," Cummings said.

He told lawmakers that Johnson had even considered being injected with the coronavirus live on television.

Johnson did in fact later fall seriously ill with the disease in late March 2020 and had to be treated in an intensive care unit.

Boris Johnson after his discharge
Johnson fell sick with COVID-19 and was discharged in April last year after a week in hospitalImage: Reuters/Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing Street

How has Johnson responded?

Johnson on Wednesday rejected Cummings' criticisms.

In answer to a question from opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer, Johnson said he did not accept major allegations made by Cummings.

"I don't think anybody could credibly accuse this government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point. We have worked flat-out to minimize loss of life," the prime minister said.

"The handling of this pandemic has been one of the most difficult things this country's had to do for a very long time, but none of the decisions have been easy."

What is the hearing for?

The hearing was part of a parliamentary inquiry into the UK's pandemic management conducted by two committees of senior members of parliament: the science and the health committees.

An independent public inquiry into how the government handled the pandemic is to begin in spring 2022.  

How has the pandemic been managed in the UK?

The United Kingdom has registered almost 128,000 deaths amid the COVID-19 pandemic, making it one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe and giving it one of the highest death tolls in the world.

Critics have said Johnson's government was tardy in imposing lockdowns in early 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and that scientific advice was often not heeded.

On the plus side, the country has seen a successful vaccination drive, with around two-thirds of adults having received at least one dose so far.

This makes the UK vaccination program one of the fastest in the world — along with the UAE, Israel, Bahrain and Chile.

Protester holding anti-Cummings banners
Cummings himself is a controversial figure, and protesters were waiting for him before the hearingImage: Frank Augstein/AP/picture-alliance

Who is Dominic Cummings?

Cummings, 49, was a major strategist in the "Leave" camp during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign.  

When Johnson was appointed prime minister after Theresa May's resignation in July 2019, he chose Cummings as his chief adviser.

Cummings is seen as having helped engineer Johnson's landslide victory in elections in December of that year.

However, there were persistent tensions between Cummings and his colleagues, and he left the job a year after the elections.

 Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street with carton in hands
Cummings resigned in November 2020 after frequent clashes with colleaguesImage: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

Cummings was also criticized for undermining the government's coronavirus lockdown message in the early days of the pandemic.

He undertook a long cross-country car journey with his family and visited a local landmark, later claiming that the latter trip was to test his eyesight. Johnson continued to support him at the time, but many critics found his defense unconvincing.

Last month, Cummings emerged from a long period of relative silence to accuse Johnson of seeking to use potentially illegal donations to renovate his official lodgings in Downing Street, which are taxpayer-funded.

He also claimed that Johnson had mulled blocking an internal inquiry into leaks to the press because a close friend of the prime minister's fiancee, Carrie Symonds, could have been implicated.

Neither Cummings nor Johnson enjoys great credibility among the UK public, with a YouGov poll last week finding just 14% of respondents trusted the former to tell the truth, while 38% trusted the prime minister.

tj/rs (AFP, Reuters)