Watch: Lee Cain says Boris Johnson 'should have done more'
The COVID Inquiry has laid bare some of the inner workings of Downing Street – and Boris Johnson's decisions – during the pandemic.
Evidence from various people, including Johnson's then-chief advisor Dominic Cummings and former director of communications Lee Cain, have revealed criticisms of Johnson and concerns at the time about decisions he and the government were making.
They included an attitude that older people should 'accept their fate' at the hands of the virus, the inquiry has heard, as well as advice Johnson was given about his own cabinet, decisions he was making around the pandemic, and the way he was viewed by those who worked with him on a daily basis.
Here are eight things the COVID inquiry was told about Boris Johnson on Tuesday:
Johnson was warned about NHS
Cummings said he warned the prime minister of the NHS imploding “like a zombie apocalypse film”, the inquiry heard.
Calling for daily meetings on the crisis in the cabinet room, Johnson’s former chief adviser said in a WhatsApp to the then-prime minister on 12 March, 2020: “The overwhelming danger here is being late and the NHS implodes like zombie apocalypse film – not being a week early.”
Asked about the message, Cummings told the inquiry new NHS data he had seen revealed “that the whole crisis was coming much, much, much faster than we had been told”.
Johnson eventually told the nation it would be plunged into a full lockdown on 23 March.
'Obsessed with older people accepting their fate'
Evidence given to the inquiry suggested that Johnson's attitude was that older people should 'accept their fate' during the pandemic.
The government’s former chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance described a “bonkers set of exchanges” in one of this notebooks in August 2020 – during the height of the pandemic.
He wrote that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going. Quite bonkers set of exchanges”.
Another note from Vallance in December 2020, said: “PM told he has been acting early and the public are with him (but his party is not). He says his party ‘thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them. A lot of moderate people think it is a bit too much'."
A WhatsApp exchange between the PM and Cain in October 2020, appeared to back up the claim, with Johnson writing: "Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4 per cent) and of those virtually all survive. And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff."
The inquiry also heard that, according to a note read from the diary of a former private secretary, Johnson had asked why the economy was being destroyed "for people who will die anyway soon", in the days before the country went into lockdown.
The diary note from Imran Shafi, which he attributed to Johnson, stated: "We’re killing the patient to tackle the tumour. Large ppl (taken to mean large numbers of people) who will die, why are we destroying economy for people who will die anyway soon."
He was told some of his ministers were 'useless f*****s'
Johnson was told by Cummings that some of his cabinet ministers were “useless f******s” and criticised then-health secretary Matt Hancock as a “proven liar”.
Calling for a reshuffle, Communigs said in a WhatsApp message in August 2020: "At the moment the bubble thinks you've taken your eye off ball, you’re happy to have useless f*****s" in charge, and they think that a vast amount of the chaotic news on the front pages is coming from no10 when in fact it’s coming from the Cabinet who are feral".
He added: “I also must stress I think leaving Hancock in post is a big mistake – he is a proven liar who nobody believes or shd (sic) believe on anything, and we face going into autumn crisis with the c*** in charge of NHS still."
Johnson didn't think Covid was a 'big deal'
A message from Cummings sent on 3 March, 2020 said Johnson did not believe COVID was a “big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done”.
He wrote to Cain: “His focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking (the) economy into a slump”.
Asked separately why he did not push for Johnson to return from his holiday in February 2020 to deal with the crisis, Cummings said: “I thought he would have said to everybody what he thought at the time, which was ‘this is another swine flu, it’s all another rubbish media hoax’.”
'Wrong decision' on hungry children
Johnson was told “hungry children” were not the place to start when considering restraint on public finances in the pandemic, the inquiry heard.
Cain described the government’s “huge blunder” around footballer Marcus Rashford's free school meals campaign, pointing out that a lack of diversity meant there was a 'political blind spot'.
In a written statement to the inquiry, Cain said: “I remember asking in the Cabinet Room of 20 people, how many people had received free school meals. Nobody had – resulting in a policy and political blind spot. This was a huge blunder. The PM (to some degree understandably) said we needed to draw a line in the sand on public spending commitments, but this was clearly not the place to draw that line – something the PM was told by his senior team.”
He said: "I said to him at the time I don’t think hungry children is the place to start just from a moral or political standpoint, it was the wrong decision."
'Wrong crisis' for Johnson
Cain told the inquiry that the pandemic was "the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset" after he was quizzed on his description of the former PM's suggestion that the UK “could be finished with COVID in 12 weeks” as "unhelpful".
Counsel to the inquiry Andrew O’Connor asked: “Mr Cummings is clearly expressing the view to you at the time in the context of that but he doesn’t think the prime minister is up to the job. Did you agree with that?”
Cain replied: “I think that’s quite a strong thing to say. I think what will probably be clear in COVID, it was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset."
Johnson was exhausting
In one Whatsapp exchange Cummings told Cain that Johnson had gone “back to Jaws mode”.
Explaining the Jaws reference, Cain told the inquiry that Johnson would refer to the mayor from the Steven Spielberg film “who wanted to keep the beaches open”.
He said: “I think he had a routine from previous in his career where he would use that as a joke from one of his after-dinner speeches.
“The mayor was right all along to keep the beaches open because it would have been a long-term harm to the community – so it’s a sort of sub-reference to that.”
Messages sent to Cain by Cummings on 19 March – days before the first COVID lockdown – said: “Get in here he’s melting down.
“Rishi saying bond markets may fund our debt etc. He’s back to Jaws mode w***.
“I’ve literally said same thing 10 f*****g times and he still won’t absorb it.
“I’m exhausted just talking to him and stopping the trolley. I’ve had to sit here for two hours just to stop him saying stupid shit.”
Cain replied: “I’m exhausted with him.”
Cummings revealed that everyone in Downing Street called the then prime minister a "trolley" due to his propensity to change direction.
Two-week holiday in run-up to pandemic
Cummings told the inquiry it was “pretty insane” many senior government officials including Johnson went on holiday in February 2020 half-term.
Asked how it was not regarded as a crisis when the virus had exploded in Italy and there were cases in the UK, Cummings said: “Your fundamental point is obviously correct that there was indeed a massive crisis. It was indeed pretty insane that so many of the senior people were away on holiday at that time.”
But, he said, those in charge were not “beating the drum and saying ‘we’ve got to get the PM back'”.
Domestic abuse victims 'appallingly neglected'
Considerations about the impact of lockdown on vulnerable groups - including victims of domestic violence - were “appallingly neglected” by Johnson’s government, Cummings said.
Asked if Downing Street considered ethnic minority groups, domestic abuse victims and others in the run-up to imposing a national lockdown in 2020, Cummings said: “I would say that that entire question was almost entirely appallingly neglected by the entire planning system.”
Cain said it would be “unfair” to criticise Johnson for failing to make clear to domestic abuse victims that they did not have to stay at home during COVID restrictions, telling the inquiry: “I think it would be unfair to criticise the PM on that particular issue. I mean, it would depend on if he’d been briefed, if there was something particularly we were trying to get across."