A fightback has been launched by the government against Dominic Cummings, after he accused ministers of a chaotic and incompetent response to the Covid pandemic that led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
Boris Johnson said the testimony on Wednesday from his former chief adviser “doesn’t bear any relation to reality”, while Matt Hancock dismissed allegations he lied in cabinet and to the public as “unsubstantiated” and “not true”.
Westminster was still reeling after the seven-hour evidence session to two parliamentary committees, when Cummings delivered excoriating analysis of the government’s response to coronavirus, saying it was “lions led by donkeys over and over again”.
Focusing his attacks on the health secretary and prime minister in particular, Cummings said Johnson was unfit for office, “constantly U-turned” and ignored scientists’ advice to order a second national lockdown. He accused Hancock of “lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly” and “criminal” behaviour for holding back Covid tests so he could meet his “stupid” target of reaching 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.
In response to questions from a journalist on a trip to a hospital in Essex, Johnson denied that his delay in ordering a second lockdown last autumn against the advice of scientific advisers led to unnecessary deaths.
The prime minister said he had grappled with the question of whether to enforce another lockdown, which he knew would be a “very, very painful, traumatic thing for people”, and had to “set that against the horrors of the pandemic”.
He insisted: “At every stage, we’ve been governed by a determination to protect life, to save life, to ensure that our NHS is not overwhelmed, and we’ve followed to the best we can the data and the guidance that we’ve had.”
Johnson originally said he made “no comment” on Cummings’ accusations, before saying some claims he had heard didn’t “bear any relation to reality”.
He also admitted it was uncertain whether Covid restrictions due to end on 21 June would go ahead as planned, saying: “I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the roadmap, but we may need to wait.”
Meanwhile, Hancock faced questions from MPs in the House of Commons. Arriving in the chamber to boisterous cheers from Conservative backbenchers, he said he had been “straight with people” throughout the pandemic and that the “unsubstantiated allegations around honesty” were not true.
“There were unprecedented difficulties that come with preparations for an unprecedented event”, Hancock said, urging his critics to “work together with a can-do spirit of positive collaboration”.
Tory MPs rallied round the health secretary, accusing the opposition parties of “playing politics”, “opportunism and revisionism” and peddling “unsubstantiated Westminster gossip”.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Cummings’ allegations should be taken seriously. “We’ve got one of the highest death tolls in Europe and the families who have lost someone are entitled to answers in relation to this,” he said.
“Bad decisions have consequences. In this case, I’m afraid, they’re unnecessary deaths … They’re very, very serious allegations. They paint a picture that actually leads to the prime minister – the buck stops with him.”
Cummings has promised to provide evidence of his claims, which will be considered by the Commons’ science and health select committees conducting a “lessons learned” investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic, well ahead of the official inquiry not due to start until spring 2022.
Hancock is due to address the same set of committees on 10 June, when he is likely to be asked about Cummings’ suggestions that there was no routine testing of hospital patients discharged into care homes, meaning Covid “spread like wildfire”.
Another allegation likely to be put to him is the claim that the government was preparing to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy of letting coronavirus seep through the population – and that up until mid-March, senior government figures including the cabinet secretary were suggesting people catch it “like the old chickenpox parties”.
Hancock will face further questions when he leads a Downing Street press conference at 5pm on Thursday, potentially alongside scientific advisers whom Cummings alleged he used as “shields for himself”.