LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday brushed aside allegations from his former chief aide that his failings had caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths from Covid-19, saying “some of the commentary” bore no relation to reality.
Asked if that accusation was true, Johnson said: “No, I don’t think so, but of course this has been an incredibly difficult series of decisions, none of which we’ve taken lightly.
“We followed the best we could, the data and the guidance that we’ve had.”
Johnson’s poll ratings have rebounded sharply this year thanks to a fast rollout of vaccines, despite an initial response to the pandemic last year that produced a higher death toll than in some comparable European countries.
“Some of the commentary I’ve heard doesn’t bear any relation to reality,” Johnson told reporters, saying the public wanted the government to focus on taking the country out of the pandemic lockdown.
Asked about the allegation from Cummings that Johnson had said he would rather “let the bodies pile high” than impose a second lockdown, an accusation he has previously denied, the prime minister merely said: “I make no comment on it.”
Health Minister Matt Hancock also hit back at Cummings on Thursday after the former aide accused him of repeatedly lying to colleagues and the public about the government’s response.
“These allegations that were put yesterday… are serious allegations and I welcome the opportunity… to put formally on the record that these unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true, and that I’ve been straight with people in public and in private throughout,” Hancock told parliament.
One of the most damning allegations from Cummings was that it was nonsense the government had thrown a “protective ring around” care homes at the start of the pandemic, and that instead people had been sent back from hospital who had contracted the coronavirus. read more
“We did everything we could to protect the NHS (National Health Service) and to protect care homes as well,” Johnson said.
The opposition Labor Party said Hancock should lose his job if he lied. But lawmakers from Johnson’s governing Conservative Party rallied around him in parliament.
Jeremy Hunt, a Conservative former health secretary and co-chairman of the committee at which Cummings had appeared, said the former aide’s accusations should be treated as unproven until there was evidence to back them up.
Hancock is also due to face further questioning from media at a news conference later.
The British government “disastrously” failed the public by mishandling the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former top adviser and Brexit architect Dominic Cummings told lawmakers on Wednesday.
In an excoriating account of the crisis’s early days, Cummings – a divisive figure who carved out a uniquely powerful role in Johnson’s government before stepping down in December – said senior ministers and officials “completely failed” to adequately plan.
Covid-19 has claimed nearly 128,000 lives in Britain – the fifth-highest official death toll in the world – while the virus is noted on more than 152,000 UK death certificates, in a sign of its true impact.
Cummings accused Johnson of branding coronavirus “a scare story” and of being too reluctant to impose a lockdown because of the economic impact. He also hit out at Johnson’s leadership, assessing the crisis as a case of “lions led by donkeys over and over again”.
And he repeatedly singled out Health Secretary Matt Hancock for extraordinary criticism, alleging he lied to colleagues on numerous occasions and could have been fired for “at least 15 or 20 things”.
“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,” Cummings told a parliamentary committee.
“When the public needed us most of the government failed,” he said, adding an apology “to all the families of those who died unnecessarily”.
In response, Johnson told parliament he took “full responsibility” but insisted decision-making during the pandemic had been “appallingly difficult”.
“I maintain my point that the government acted throughout with the intention to save life… in accordance with the best scientific advice.”
The testimony of Cummings, the strategist behind the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, was much anticipated after he began attacking Johnson’s coronavirus policies and financial dealings in recent weeks.
During hours of questions from parliament’s health and science scrutiny committees, he conceded “many, many institutions failed around the world” in their initial handling of the pandemic.
But he blasted senior UK officials for failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
“Lots of people were literally skiing in the middle of February,” Cummings said.
He accused officials of “catastrophic” group-think, pursuing a haphazard strategy of so-called herd immunity before belatedly abandoning it when the likely death toll became clear.
Cummings said Britain’s top civil servant suggested to Johnson in mid-March that he could encourage gatherings to spread infections and build immunity.
Comparing officials’ eventual realization of the situation to a scene in the movie “Independence Day” after an alien invasion, Cummings said the deputy cabinet secretary conceded to him that “there is no plan, we’re in huge trouble”.
“The prime minister’s view throughout January, February, March was… the real danger here is not the disease, the real danger here is the measures we take to deal with the disease and the economic destruction that will cause,” he added.
Cummings was appointed chief adviser by Johnson when he took power in July 2019, helping him secure a thumping election victory that December. But his frequent clashes with colleagues are said to have led to persistent tensions and he left government a year later.
The 49-year-old was criticized for undermining the government’s lockdown message early in the pandemic when he went on a lengthy cross-country journey with his family.