Dominic Cummings hearing: The inside story of the timeline of the weeks before COVID lockdown
Written by Hitmix News on 26 May 2021
During his evidence, Dominic Cummings laid out the events that led up to the first COVID lockdown on 23 March last year and some of the events after.
Follow live updates on Mr Cummings reporting to MPs
This is what he said happened in the weeks and months leading up to it:
First week in January
Conversations started to be had in Downing Street about the growing COVID outbreak in China. Mr Cummings said they would then “flair up” periodically in the days after that as stories about it appeared in the media.
First half of January
Mr Cummings, from his memory, said COVID was raised with the PM “because it was on the news”. “It was a general chat with me and other people”. During this time he also tried to get Downing Street to rearrange itself to be more effective but he “completely lost the argument”.
Second half of January
Mr Cummings said a lot of his time was spent working on procurement, but around this time he was also working on a data unit for No 10.
First meeting of SAGE (the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).
Early discussions at SAGE meetings after that were around whether to adopt the herd immunity approach – with concerns that a huge number of cases was inevitable, the choice was, 1. by doing nothing, there would be a high peak in the summer after which herd immunity would apply and the disease would fade away, or 2. suppress the virus in spring and summer but with the consequence that there would be a high peak in winter, after which herd immunity would apply.
The prevailing view, which formed over time, was that the former was better as there would be less disruption overall and to wait for the high peak to occur in winter would potentially cause more deaths. In the weeks afterwards, Mr Cummings said he attended some SAGE meetings, but not all. Instead he sent Ben Warner, a physicist he had appointed to help with a data unit he wanted to set up at No 10, who would report back to him with SAGE’s findings.
Mr Cummings said to the private office of No 10, he wanted to look at pandemic planning and wanted to go to Porton Down to talk to some people there about it. On the same day, he asked Health Secretary Matt Hancock: “Are we up to speed with pandemic planning?”
He said Mr Hancock outlined preparations, saying it was on the government’s “top tier risk register” and the preparations were being “stress tested”. Mr Cummings said at the hearing he regretted not following up on it and pushing it “the way that I should have done”.
First 10 days in February
Mr Cummings said that, in early February, less than half of his time was spent on COVID. In this period, he said there were other things going on – “the HS2 ‘nightmare’, the reshuffle on the 12th and then the PM went on holiday for two weeks”. He apologised to the hearing for not hitting the “panic button” during this period.
The PM’s former adviser said throughout February and early March his boss took the attitude that the “real danger” was the public’s reaction to COVID fears and the impact it would have on the economy, but “lots of other senior people in Whitehall took the same view”.
Middle of February
Lots of key people were literally skiing during this period, Mr Cummings said. In February, Mr Cummings said that the PM regarded COVID as a “scare story – the new swine flu”.
Last week of February
Mr Cummings said there wasn’t any sense of urgency about COVID, from No 10 or the Cabinet Office. He added later that the experiences of countries around the world during this time, for example Taiwan and Singapore, were being “completely discarded”.
First half of March
Much of the assumption about why herd immunity was thought the best approach was based on the belief that the British public would not tolerate a lockdown and an East Asian-style test and trace system.
During this time, Mr Cummings said this point of view was raised in the PM’s office but he and others were pointing to the TV and saying “look what’s happening in Lombardy (in Italy). This assumption that the public don’t want a lockdown is false and we should abandon it (the prevailing assumption)”.
In the first week of March, Mr Cummings said he was told that there was 20% chance the reasonable worst case scenario, in terms of the number of people who might die, could happen. He said this tendency of the experts to underestimate or miscommunicate the danger stopped people taking it seriously.
The government publishes a Coronavirus Action Plan, proposing the need to “contain, mitigate, delay”. Mr Cummings said “when we got that document, we’d been told for weeks we’ve got all these plans in place, Ben Warner said ‘this is the press release, where is the actual plan?’ (he was told) ‘This is the plan’. ‘Where is the plan?’ (officials said) ‘I don’t know, we don’t have that’. We in No 10 were operating on completely false assumptions. That is why I blame myself.”
Another SAGE meeting – five weeks after the World Health Organisation had said it was a public health emergency of international concern.
The minutes of the meeting say the only approach thought viable and necessary at that point was the need to shield the vulnerable, while the rest of the country should become infected to allow herd immunity to be achieved over time.
Mr Cummings said he didn’t advise the PM that the approach was wrong but by that point he was having “smart people” coming to him and telling him the US approach (of doing little to slow the outbreak) was wrong and the UK would have to lock down.
He said, despite that, the official view all the way through to the 16 March was that lockdowns were “more dangerous (than allowing the outbreak to run its course)”. At this point, Mr Cummings says the thinking was the UK would not close pubs, leisure, mass events etc.
Ben Warner’s brother Marc, who was building a data dashboard for COVID for the NHS, came to Mr Cummings and said he was worried about the plan that was being put in place to deal with the coming outbreak – which at that point involved allowing the virus to spread, so that herd immunity was achieved.
He told Mr Cummings: “It could be mad, could be incredibly destructive. Has it been tested and thought through?”
A key week, according to Mr Cummings. Because of the earlier SAGE discussions on herd immunity, officials were heard talking about it as a concept.
Mr Cummings said: “It wasn’t that it was thought of as being a good thing, it was a question of inevitably, of timing – that was the whole logic of all the discussions in January, February and early March, and that was why… people from SAGE and the government started to say publicly about herd immunity – you either have herd immunity by September, or by January, and that was the assumption up to Friday 13th”.
During this week, Mr Cummings said he got in contact with Professor Tim Gowers, a mathematician from Cambridge University and Demis Hassabis, an artificial intelligence expert and founder of DeepMind, and started sharing SAGE documents with them. He said they “could understand the technicalities”.
Some SAGE members said publicly “we are going to be shielding people and by the time we come out of it we are going to have herd immunity”. Mr Cummings says, at that time, “that was the plan” and he was completely baffled as to why No 10 has tried to deny that.
Night of 11 March
Mr Cummings texted the group that included the PM and Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, telling them that many experts were saying the risk of delaying the introduction of tougher restrictions was very high and the government would have to work much harder to publicly justify it, if they continued to delay bringing them in.
He said, at that point, most people in SAGE still felt the herd immunity approach was best and that was why he felt reluctant to tell the PM the prevailing scientific advice was wrong. He said part of the reason that was contributing to the prevailing view was that there was a “pushback” in the system for a delay because there was no plan in place.
A day that Mr Cummings describes as “completely surreal”.
At 7.48, he texted the PM, saying “we’ve got big problems coming. The Cabinet Office is terrifyingly s***. We must announce today, not next week, ‘if you feel ill, stay home’. We are looking at between 100,000 and 500,000 deaths.”
He said the day started to be about COVID but got derailed because the National Security team came and told the PM that Donald Trump wanted the UK to join a bombing campaign in the Middle East, so they started having meetings about that.
On the same day, Mr Cummings said the prime minister’s girlfriend had gone “completely crackers” about a Times story about her, the PM and their dog. She was “demanding” the press office deal with “something completely trivial”.
At the meeting on COVID later on, they decided to press on with household quarantine. Meanwhile, the attorney general persuaded the PM not to join the bombing campaign.
At the end of the day, Mr Cummings met with Ben Warner and his brother Mark and they impressed on him “we are heading for total catastrophe, we need plan B”.
Ben Warner went to speak about his fears to Patrick Vallance, who also expressed his worries. The graphs were showing that even with the official plan, which by that point included household quarantine, “you are going to completely smash through the capacity of the NHS”.
That evening, they decided they were going to have to sit down with the PM and tell him they would have to ditch the plan, and prepare for the “biggest disaster this country has seen since 1940”.
At that point, Mr Cummings said, the second most powerful official in the country, deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen McNamara, came up and said she’d been told by the official responsible for coordinating with the Department for Health that, despite having been told in the past there was a plan for a major pandemic, “there is no plan. We’re in huge trouble… we are absolutely f*****… we are going to kill thousands of people”.
Mr Cummings showed the PM the white board with “plan B”.
65/ First sketch of Plan B, PM study, Fri 13/3 eve – shown PM Sat 14/4: NB. Plan A ‘our plan’ breaks NHS,>4k p/day dead min.Plan B: lockdown, suppress, crash programs (tests/treatments/vaccines etc), escape 1st AND 2nd wave (squiggly line instead of 1 or 2 peaks)… details later pic.twitter.com/IRl0M3swSl
— Dominic Cummings (@Dominic2306) May 26, 2021
After the official meeting in No 10, Mr Cummings and Ben and Marc Warner had a private meeting with the PM and showed him the graphs which explained what was going to happen.
Mr Cummings said Ben Warner told the PM “we are going to have to lockdown, but there is no lockdown plan. SAGE haven’t modelled it. DH (Department of Health) don’t have a plan. We are going to have to figure out a lockdown plan”.
He said it was “like a scene from Independence Day with Jeff Goldblum saying the aliens are here and your plan is broken, you’re going to need a new plan, with Ben Warner in the Jeff Goldblum role”. He showed the PM the figures and told him the NHS was going to be “smashed” within weeks and he had “days” to act.
Mr Cummings said that in the days after the PM kept coming back to “we don’t really know how dangerous it is, we are going to completely destroy the economy by having lockdown, maybe we shouldn’t do it”.
Mr Hancock said publicly “we have a plan and herd immunity is not part of it”, but Mr Cummings said that was wrong, as herd immunity had been part of the plan all along, up until that point.
The PM announced a change of approach and people were advised to stay at home. But pubs were not closed and mass events were not stopped. Mr Cummings explained that part of the reason for that was because there was no lockdown plan at that point.
He added later that there was no data system at that point, and he needed to use his iphone as a calculator to make predictions about the extent to which infections would spread, which he then wrote down on a white board.
Another SAGE meeting, which Mr Cummings said didn’t unanimously agree that there should be a lockdown to flatten the curve.
Mr Cummings briefed the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that rumours that there was going to be a London only lockdown were not true.
Mr Cummings said he pulled in the officials to discuss shielding. He said “not only was there not a plan, people in the Cabinet Office said ‘we shouldn’t have a plan, we shouldn’t put out a helpline for people to call because it will all be swamped and we haven’t got a system’.”
The country goes into full lockdown.
Mr Cummings says at this point the graphs based on official figures were still showing curves that were indicating the epidemic would peak in June “even though we knew from the figures of people in ICUs, the official graphs had to be completely wrong”.
Patrick Vallance texts Dominic Cummings about vaccines, saying he wanted to set up a vaccine taskforce outside of the Department of Health.
Mr Cummings said, even before that, experts – people like Bill Gates – were saying that it should be possible to create vaccines to tackle COVID, but Sir Patrick is the one who came up with the idea and deserves the most credit. Mr Cummings said the approach of the people he was talking to – to build vaccine programmes in parallel – was something the traditional Whitehall accountancy processes “couldn’t cope with”, because they were not used to spending billions on something that might not work.
He said the programme went on to work because it had one person with overall responsibility, Kate Bingham, who reported to the PM, not the Department of Health.
He said there was little formal discussion about whether it should go ahead in the way it was suggested, the PM – when he came back off after being ill – signed off on it in “about 90 seconds”.
In a meeting at the Cabinet table, Mr Cummings said No 10 officials were told the Department of Health were “turning down ventilators because the price had been marked up”.
Matt Hancock sets the target for daily tests of 100,000 by the end of April.
Mr Cummings said this proved “incredibly stupid” as, after Mr Cummings put together a team to scale up testing, he was told that Mr Hancock was “interfering to maximise his chances of hitting his target by the end of the month”.
He said, as a result, half the government were calling round saying “do not do what Hancock says, build the thing (testing system) properly for the medium term”, while Mr Hancock was calling and saying “down tools on this, hold tests back, so I can hit my target”.
Sometime after 12-13 April
In his early evidence, Mr Cummings also explained why he updated his blog. He said it was to restress his thoughts on pandemic planning, reiterating those he had expressed the year before. He said the reason why he did this was because he thought it was going to become a huge US election issue.
Mr Cummings said just before he and the PM were diagnosed with COVID, the health secretary Matt Hancock told them in the Cabinet Office that “everything is fine on PPE. We’ve got it all covered. When I came back almost the first meeting I had was about the disaster in PPE”.
Mr Cummings said the PM came close to sacking Matt Hancock during the month, but didn’t give more details about exactly what happened. He said the reason why Mr Johnson did not go ahead with it would be speculation, but none of the reasons were “good”.
Mr Cummings said he organised a meeting in Downing Street to discuss the plan to shield vulnerable people but when he and other officials “poked holes in things, there was nothing there”. Some officials said there was nothing that could be done and they couldn’t send out letter without a helpline number because they hadn’t set up the line. When it was pointed out that people might die because of it, “there was a lot of shrugging”. Subsequently, a team was set up to get the databases together to make sure food could be delivered to people.
When the PM came back to work, Mr Cummings said he found out that people were being sent back to care homes from hospital without being test and asked “What the hell happened? We were told they would be tested (before being sent back)”. He added: “All the rhetoric was ‘we put a shield around them’. Complete nonsense.”
He went to say that after this period, the PM’s attitude to closing the borders was that he “never wanted a proper border policy”. He said that he and others proposed a Taiwan or Singapore-style border policy, but because there was no policy, it was “undermining the message that we should take (COVID) seriously”. He said the PM was worried the travel industry would be destroyed.
He said that the PM’s attitude, after he was sick, was that Mr Johnson shouldn’t have ordered a lockdown, something Mr Cummings said he did not agree with.
Test, trace and isolate went live.
Mr Cummings said that the reason why it did not get set up before this was because of disagreements between Mr Hancock’s department and No 10 and because of distractions during the previous month, like the PM being ill.
Dominic Cummings held a news conference in the Rose Garden of Downing Street to explain why he had gone to Durham when he was sick with COVID.
He told the hearing he had not been entirely frank when he gave the news conference as the real reason he left London to go to Durham was because he had earlier had security issues at his home and he felt unsafe staying in his home. He also said he wasn’t spoken to about the police because he had left London, but because he had security issues.
He said he didn’t want to apologise at the time because he didn’t feel he had done anything wrong, and he didn’t want to fully explain what had happened at the time because of the security issues.
Eat Out To Help Out begins.
Mr Cummings said he did not object to the idea in meetings he attended when it was raised as an idea because “by that point” he had already lost the argument about the PM’s general strategy which was to try to get the economy back on track, despite what Mr Cummings saw as the risks.
Mr Cummings said he only became aware that the testing regime could have been stepped up to up to “five million” tests a day but the experts who could have allowed that to put in place were “being blocked”. He said in the following days Patrick Vallance and others said it should go ahead.
But he added that work on it should have started in March or April and if it had been, “September would have been completely different as we would have had (the capacity for) millions of tests, and fast tracked results”. He said that because it wasn’t until late July that he realised the opportunity had been missed “all that time we were playing catch-up in September, October”.
Students start to return to campuses.
Mr Cummings said he opposed students going to or returning to campuses, because he feared it would have consequences, but the government went ahead anyway.
Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty came to No 10 and said that “we and SAGE think that need a two week or possibly longer lockdown”. Mr Cummings said in the summer Prof Whitty had told him before the schools went back, R would be below 1 but it was over 50% likely that R would be over 1 after they go back in September.
He said that many people had told the PM over the summer he should not tell everyone to get back to work, but the main focus of the government was to try to get back to normal.
There was a long discussion about it with the PM and at the end of it he decided “we are not going to do anything”. Mr Cummings said he was worried he was making a mistake. The Cabinet Secretary agreed, he added. By that point there was a good data team in place and could make predictions about what was to come.
There was meeting of SAGE and other people but Mr Cummings said by this point the PM was listening to people who were saying “there’s already herd immunity, there won’t be any second wave etc.” He said two experts, including one from Oxford University, said “don’t lock down”. At that point, he said the PM wasn’t persuaded to go for a second lockdown.
The No 10 team held a meeting at which they projected themselves forward to what the data was telling them the situation would be at the end of the October. Mr Cummings said at that point it was clear that in five to six weeks time the would reach the stage where the NHS would get “smashed” again. But, despite Matt Hancock agreeing with Mr Cummings, he said the PM was still not persuaded.
“I said to him the whole lesson of what happened before was that by delaying, the lockdown came later, it had to be more severe, it had to last longer, the economic disruption is even worse, and we’ll have killed God knows how many people in the meantime who have caught COVID. Surely we’ve got to learn the lessons of the past. The prime minister said ‘no’.”
Mr Cummings said the reason was because the PM remained unconvinced he should have locked down the first time. “He thought he’d been gamed on the numbers,” Mr Cummings said of Mr Johnson.
The tiering system starts
Mr Cummings said he approved of the tiering system in principle, as it was necessary to enable to government – which by this point had accurate data – to lock down one part of the country and leave another part of the country – where rates were much lower – unaffected. But he said the system that was put in place had “holes”.
“Like lots of things it was the victim of having to be cobbled together under time pressure, rather than having been thought out earlier on,” he said, but it was also because they could not get enforcement sorted out, that would allow the sort of hyperlocal approach that countries like South Korea were able to employ.
“What really should have happened is, we should never have let it get out of control anyway. In September, we should have smashed it, and then had a Korea-type targeted approach.”
Mr Cummings said, after the prime minister finally made the decision to lock down a second time, he heard the PM say “let the bodies pile high”. He said the BBC’s story of what the PM was supposed to have said was an accurate account.
Weekly testing of NHS staff is promised.
Mr Cummings said he supported bringing in sooner the weekly testing of NHS staff and spent a considerable amount of time trying to get lamp and lateral flow testing brought forward so NHS staff could have “a test a day”. He said he believes the reason why it was not employed sooner was because of an “incredibly conservative” attitude inside the NHS. “If something works, nobody gets any credit. If it doesn’t work, you get the blame,” he said. Mr Cummings said he was having meetings about mass testing NHS staff in April: “No 10 was pushing it,” he added.
Mr Cummings said the reason why he resigned on this days was “definitely connected to the fact that the prime minister’s girlfriend was trying to change a whole bunch of different appointments at No 10 and appoint her friends to particular jobs.”
He added: “In particular she was trying to overturn the outcome of an official process about hiring a particular job, in a way that was not only completely unethical but was also clearly illegal. I thought the whole process of the way the prime minister was behaving at that point was appalling.”
But he added that relations between him and the PM had deteriorated after the second lockdown because Mr Johnson knew Mr Cummings blamed him, “and I did”. The fundamental problem was that Mr Cummings thought he was “unfit for the job”.