LONDON – On the night of March 26, 2020, as the coronavirus engulfed Britain and its leaders struggled to find an answer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ridiculed his government’s Health Secretary, with profanity, as totally “hopeless”, according to an SMS posted by his former chief adviser.
The WhatsApp message, one of several texts shared by Mr Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings on Wednesday, reignited a debate over how Britain handled the early days of the pandemic – a period during of which Mr Cummings said she moved from course to course and failed to put in place an effective testing and traceability program.
In a gripping testimony to Parliament last month, Mr Cummings blamed much of the blame for the disarray on Health Secretary Matt Hancock, whom he accused of incompetence and serial lies. Mr Hancock denied the charges before lawmakers last week. He said it was “revealing” that Mr Cummings had failed to provide evidence to support his more inflammatory claims.
WhatsApp messages and an accompanying 7,000 word blog post are the old assistant’s attempt to do just that. They represent a government under relentless stress, rushing to secure ventilators and protective gear, step up a testing program and define the right strategy to prevent hospitals across the country from collapsing.
In the exchange of text with Mr Johnson on March 26, Mr Cummings noted that the United States has gone from 2,200 people a day to 100,000 in two weeks. He said Mr Hancock was “skeptical” about the possibility of testing even 10,000 a day, although he had promised two days earlier to achieve that goal within days.
The exchange prompted Mr Johnson to make a layman’s description of Mr Hancock, which he followed with a series of after-midnight calls to Mr Cummings who aid did not land. Mr Cummings said Mr Johnson was trying to contact him to tell him that he himself had just tested positive for the virus.
It sparked a tumultuous period in which Mr Johnson fell gravely ill with Covid-19, ending up in an intensive care unit, as his government struggled to contain a virus that was exploding across the country. Somehow, Mr Cummings said, the situation has improved: Mr Johnson has delegated his Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to chair meetings in his absence, and Mr Raab has done a better job. .
“Raab can properly chair meetings instead of telling rambling stories and jokes,” Mr Cummings wrote. “He let the good officials question people, so we started to uncover the truth, unlike the Prime Minister who, as soon as things get ‘a little embarrassing’, does all the schtick ‘take it offline’ before yelling “forward to victory”, giving a thumbs-up and pulling it out of the room before anyone can disagree. “
Mr. Cummings is not an impartial observer. He and Mr Johnson had a bitter falling out a year after Mr Cummings organized the election campaign which gave Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party an 80-seat majority in Parliament. Mr Johnson fired him last November, and the aide recently led some sort of guerrilla insurgency against his former boss on social media.
Public support for Mr Johnson remained strong as Britain recovered from its shaky beginnings to rapidly roll out vaccines. Mr Cummings, for his part, has been discredited since last year when reports surfaced that he broke lockdown rules to travel 260 miles to his parents’ house in northern England.
The screenshots of the WhatsApp texts only offer a fragmentary account of what happened at 10 Downing Street during this time. Mr Hancock claimed there had never been a nationwide shortage of protective equipment, that the testing system finally worked and everyone who needed treatment for Covid-19 got it .
In his testimony, Mr. Hancock said he did not know why Mr. Cummings had such animosity against him. He said he knew Mr. Cummings was agitating to get him fired. But he insisted Mr Johnson never wavered in his support and stressed that it was Mr Cummings who lost his job.
“The best thing to say about this, and it will be corroborated by many people in government, is that the government has performed better over the past six months,” Hancock told a parliamentary committee.
Still, Mr Cummings was at the heart of Covid’s response and his WhatsApp texts with Mr Johnson give real-time insight into how the government has handled this. He accused Mr Hancock of rewriting history, noting that Britain initially abandoned community testing before reinstating it with Mr Hancock’s much-vaunted goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of the day. end of April 2020.
Devi Sridhar, head of the Global Public Health Program at the University of Edinburgh, said the latest information “reinforces the fact that testing capacity was a bottleneck, although they never admitted it publicly ”. But Professor Sridhar said she doubted “the vast majority of the British public is interested in these exchanges. They want Covid to be over, their vaccines and their lives to continue. “
Indeed, Mr Cummings’ disclosures appear largely designed to shape the narrative ahead of a parliamentary inquiry into how the government handled the pandemic, which he said would not be completed until Mr Johnson left.
Mr Cummings cited two other incidents which he said demonstrated Mr Johnson’s lack of confidence in his health secretary. On March 27 last year, as hospitals filled up, Mr Cummings texted the Prime Minister telling him the government had turned down offers to buy ventilators because suppliers had raised their prices.
“It’s Hancock,” replied Mr Johnson. “He was desperate. “
A month later, Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson were texting again late at night, this time about the shortage of face masks and other personal protective equipment in hospitals. The Prime Minister launched the idea of reassigning responsibility for this to another Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove.
“On ppe, it’s a disaster,” Mr Johnson wrote. “I can’t think of anything other than taking Hancock off and putting Gove on.”