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Covid investigation: read private WhatsApp messages from Downing Street

Nature

Image source, Getty Images

Legend,

Messages from people including Dominic Cummings (right) and Boris Johnson were released during the investigation.

At the center of the UK’s response to Covid-19 was a small group of politicians and officials tasked with guiding the country through the crisis.

But private messages released during the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic laid bare strained relations between key players – and in some cases, contempt and animosity.

Here are some of the most eye-catching exchanges we’ve seen today.

This article contains language that some readers may find offensive.

“He thinks it will be like swine flu”

The inquiry has heard in recent days how then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other key figures in Downing Street grappled with the scale of the challenge the government faced between January and March 2020.

On March 2, Mr Johnson chaired his first meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to discuss how the Government would respond to the rapid spread of Covid-19.

But a day later, Dominic Cummings – then the prime minister’s chief of staff – said he still did not think Mr Johnson was convinced of the seriousness of the situation.

In a message to Number 10’s communications director Lee Cain, he said Mr Johnson “doesn’t think it’s serious” and “it will be like swine flu”, another virus that has spread across the world in 2009, killing more than 450 people. people in the UK, but without causing a major public health crisis.

“His objective is elsewhere,” said the Prime Minister’s closest aide about his boss the day after this Cobra meeting.

“He’s back in Jaws mode”

On March 19, 2020, Mr Cummings was in a meeting with Mr Johnson and then-chancellor Rishi Sunak. During this time, he expressed his frustrations to Mr. Cain.

The exchange – which took place four days before the first UK-wide lockdown was announced – lays bare the vitriol that Mr Johnson’s closest advisers shared privately at the time.

Mr Cummings described the Prime Minister as “melting” during a discussion about how the public debt would be financed during the pandemic.

The Prime Minister is in “Jaws mode”, says Mr Cummings – a reference to a joke Mr Johnson once made about his political hero being the mayor in the film Jaws, who keeps beaches open despite warnings about sea attacks. sharks.

Both say they are “exhausted” by him. They then discuss a tweet from Times journalist Steven Swinford, saying Mr Johnson had sent a “confusing message” at a press conference.

Mr Cummings adds: “It’s only a matter of time before (Mr Johnson’s) chatter reveals the fact that he doesn’t know what to say.”

“I will personally handcuff her”

The investigation showed expletive-laden messages written by Mr Cummings about Helen MacNamara, who was then deputy cabinet secretary.

On August 21, 2020, he said her decency and ethics “bullshit” was “designed to waste a huge amount of my time”, and said she should be removed from office.

Mr Cummings said: “I will personally handcuff her and escort her out of the building”, and – using a highly offensive term – referred to her questions as “dodging the stilettos”.

He told the inquest his language was “appalling” but denied being a misogynist, saying he had been just as brutal towards male colleagues and had worked well with other women within of the government.

“Read the Riot Act”

In the summer of 2020, the political consequences of government measures in the face of the pandemic were discussed. At the time, there were reports of divisions over the government’s approach.

Mr Cummings urged Mr Johnson to reshuffle his “wild” and “useless” team to avoid political “chaos” and to “read them the riot act”. Otherwise, he warned, we could “talk about leadership challenges.”

In the August 23 messages, he also described then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock as a “proven liar who no one believes”, along with other comments too explicit to publish.

The prospect of him remaining as head of the NHS through the winter was “hideous”, he added.

‘Mouth’

The investigation showed messages from September 2020 from a group containing three of Downing Street’s central figures – Mr Cummings, Mr Cain and Simon Case, who that month was appointed cabinet secretary, the most senior civil servant from the country.

As the country weathers the worst of the first wave of Covid but faces a second winter peak, the messages show the strained relationships between key figures at the heart of government.

Mr Cummings called unnamed ministers “idiots” after a meeting, with Mr Case’s full agreement.

Mr Cain called the discussions “embarrassing”, and two days later Mr Cummings used a trolley emoji to refer to the Prime Minister (the nickname “trolley” was used by some in Number 10 to describe Mr. Johnson, due to his alleged tendency to suddenly change direction on key decisions).

As well as despair at the Prime Minister’s approach, there has been widespread criticism of Mr Hancock.

Mr Cain called him a “prankster” who “needs to go”. Mr Cummings called him a “liar”.

“Catch Covid and live longer”

As the second winter wave of Covid developed, messages appeared to show Mr Johnson’s confidence was wavering in the ability of lockdowns to control the virus.

On October 15, 2020, Mr Johnson said he was “shaken” by analysis that the average age of deaths was over 80, adding: “That’s above life expectancy. So get Covid and live longer.”

The messages were sent a day after the three-tier system of restrictions was rolled out in England.

Mr Johnson goes on to say ‘I’m not buying all this overstretched stuff from the NHS anymore.’ In other words, the Prime Minister appears to have lost confidence in the central argument put forward by his government for months in favor of containment, namely that it was necessary to limit the number of cases to a level that the services of health could bear.

When Mr Cain asked how his new outlook would change government policy, Mr Johnson replied: “It shows we are not going for a nationwide lockdown.”

But on October 31, a little over a fortnight after the exchange, the government announced a new confinement in England.

Mr Johnson has not yet responded to evidence heard at the inquiry, but is expected to give evidence later this year. He is “fully cooperating” with the investigation, his spokesperson said this week.

Nature

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