LONDON (REUTERS) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser said on Wednesday (May 26) the government failed in the Covid-19 crisis and fell “disastrously short” of the standards the public had a right to expect during the most devastating global pandemic in decades.
With almost 128,000 deaths, the United Kingdom has the world’s fifth worst official Covid-19 toll, and Mr Johnson was slow to appreciate the significance of the threat from the virus in early 2020 as it spread from China towards Britain’s shores.
Mr Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the 2016 Brexit campaign and Mr Johnson’s landslide election win in 2019, began giving evidence to British lawmakers on the lessons that can be learned from the pandemic.
Mr Cummings, who left the government late last year, has said the British health ministry was a “smoking ruin”, that Western governments failed during the crisis, and that the secretive British state was woefully unprepared for the pandemic.
“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 like this,” Mr Cummings told lawmakers on Wednesday.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed,” he said.
“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.”
Mr Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film Brexit: The Uncivil War, casts the British state as an outdated system run by incompetent amateurs who are resistant to any innovation that would bring them closer to the modern world.
British officials, he said, failed to learn the early Covid-19 lessons from Asia, were resistant to new ideas from young scientists, overly secretive, overly bureaucratic and lacked any real scrutiny from a compliant domestic media.
Asked about Mr Cummings’ criticism, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said: “At all times we have been guided by the data and the latest evidence we had.”
In a series of investigations, Reuters has reported how the British government made several errors: it was slow to spot the infections arriving, it was late with a lockdown and it continued to discharge infected hospital patients into care homes.
The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in March 2020 that 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome.
Soon after, a worst-case scenario prepared by government scientific advisers put the possible death toll at 50,000. The toll is now close to 128,000.
Mr Johnson has admitted that mistakes were made and that lessons need to be learned, but his ministers say they were working at pace in the biggest public health crisis in a century.
The prime minister has pointed to Britain’s vaccination programme as a success that will allow the economy to rebound before its peers.
Britain has the world’s fifth-fastest vaccination programme, based on shots per 100 people, behind the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Bahrain and Chile.