British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces a new political challenge as his former chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, criticizes the government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic last year. Cummings attacks on Boris Johnson were delivered in testimony to Parliament and is the latest episode of the political fallout between the Prime Minister and the aide who was his chief advisor during the first year of Johnson’s mandate.
Cummings, who also played a fundamental role during the 2016 Brexit referendum, testified in a joint session of the Committees of Health, Science, and Technologies for almost seven hours, where he chastised Johnson and his government (especially Health Secretary Matt Hancock) for the UK’s response to the COVID outbreak last year, saying that “tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die”.
The aide had resigned his post last December after he was embroiled in a scandalous countrywide trip that broke the strict quarantine guidelines that were in full effect in the UK at the time. He also had an allegedly testy relationship with Johnson’s fiancee Carry Simmonds and other members of the Tory government, which eventually lead to his demise in December 2020.
Cummings was also allegedly behind many of the leaks that brought headaches to the Prime Minister last month, which were timed days before local elections, and that raised questions about the PM’s dealings with some business leaders and his approach to the pandemic.
Although those leaks did not seem to have much of an effect on the Tory’s electoral performance (they managed to win big in many former Labour heartlands) and the Conservatives have even improved their position in the polls, the new set of revelations by Cummings would keep Downing St. in the defensive, responding to a negative media cycle.
Cummings criticizes Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID crisis
Cummings laid his line of attack against the British Government into three main points: the government was definitely not ready for the pandemic, the Prime Minister was incapable of ruling, and some of the cabinet members that form the government are inept.
Cummings said the government was “not on a war footing” in February 2020 and that while the pandemic was lurking around the corner, “lots of key people were literally skiing” and he also said that the government (which he was part of) failed to act quickly enough to implement the first lockdown and that the PM as opposed to implementing the second lockdown in Autumn 2020.
Another of the claims made by the barrage of accusations of Cummings against his former boss was that the PM itself was incapable of leading the country, saying the PM had said the infamous “let the bodies pile up” quote in his studio, that he “wasn’t taking any advice”, and that the country’s efforts against the virus were that of a “lions” lead by “donkeys”.
Cummings left the most damaging accusations for the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, saying that the minister should have been fired long ago, accusing him of “criminal, disgraceful, behavior that caused serious harm” and saying he had advised Johnson several times on firing the cabinet minister but that the PM refused.
Amid the most damaging claims against Hancock is that he was allowing untested patients to go back to care homes, despite the minister promising both the PM and Cummings that this would not happen.
The government has responded to Cummings allegations, with Hancock saying the “unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true” when answering a question in Parliament, while Boris Johnson saying that some of the allegations made by Cummings did not “bear any relation with reality”.
Some have had disagreements with the narrative pushed by Cummings, with the Telegraph publishing an article describing the actions by the government during the weeks of February and March, saying that the government had been taking some measures to prepare for the incoming pandemic at the time Cummings accused the government of not acting.
Cumming’s testimony presents a complicated test for Johnson. While he can easily try to disregard it as unfair attacks from a disgruntled former employee (a profile that Cummings fits), he also cannot deny that Cummings was a member of the inner circle of the government, meaning that he definitely had access to the inner workings of the government at the time.
Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has created much debate in the UK, with opponents of the PM accusing him of acting too late when ordering the lockdowns. However, the extremely successful vaccination rollout of the UK helped the government to counter some of that negative image, and create a more positive evaluation of their response to the crisis, especially when compared with Europe’s lethargic process.
Cummings testimony, however, will occupy the news cycle for a while, preventing the government to focus on their stated priorities for their post-pandemic plans, and it could potentially have some effect on the public standing of the PM and the Tories in general.
Still, Johnson has a lot of time to recuperate from any scandal: the next general elections are in three years, he is planning a massive spending package to “level up” struggling parts of the county, the opposition is in disarray, and he has survived very difficult political challenges before.