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Tue 22 June 2021

The former Number 10 advisor’s explosive evidence on the Government response to the pandemic confirms plan mass infection – but he cannot escape blame, argues Nafeez Ahmed

Boris Johnson’s former chief advisor and mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, today accused the Government of a “massive failure” in its COVID-19 strategy which, he admitted, he was partly responsible for.

The claims and revelations go some way to corroborate Byline Times reporting since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

They also raise further questions about Cummings’ opaque role in the unfolding crisis, and contradict key facts about his time in Government, as confirmed by official documents.

Among the most crucial is that Cummings and the Government knew full well that the original strategy would result in potentially hundreds of thousands of people dying – but accepted this outcome as long as they could stretch out the crisis to avoid too much disruption to the NHS and the economy.


Herd Immunity Confirmed

Perhaps the most damning revelation is Cummings’ confirmation that the Government – including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – had at the outset adopted a ‘herd immunity by natural infection’ plan, which set the UK up for the catastrophic death toll that would later unfold over two Coronavirus waves and two lockdowns. 

Cummings admitted that, as the pandemic was beginning, he, the Prime Minister and the Government were relaxed about the crisis. Little was done to prepare, to the point that Johnson went on holiday for two weeks in February (contrary to Johnson’s own claims). Cummings admits, however, his own responsibility, noting that he should have “hit the panic button” more than he did, and that he had neglected to bother looking at the existing pandemic plan. 

He also admits that the herd immunity ideology – letting the virus spread so that the population could build up a level of immunity – was so entrenched in Government from the very beginning that Johnson had proposed the idea of injecting himself with COVID-19 on live television to reassure the public.

Cummings also confirmed that, in March, the Government’s original thinking was that the spread of COVID-19 would be inevitable. But, instead of a suppression strategy, the goal would be to attempt to push down a sharp peak to allow the NHS to cope. 

Neither a lockdown nor a ‘test and trace’ strategy was believed to be publicly palatable – and, in March, the Government had simply rejected the very notion of attempting a test and trace approach on grounds that it would have to be set up “from zero” – although top public health experts such as former World Health Organisation official Dr Anthony Costello said in April that such a system could have been rapidly created by empowering already existing public health teams at local authority levels. 

Instead, when the Government finally belatedly decided to create a Test and Trace system, it did so by providing bloated contracts to inexperienced giant accountancy firms.


The Economy

Until 13 March, according to Cummings, the Government believed that the choice was between herd immunity by natural infection achieved by September after one big peak of the virus – or herd immunity in January 2021 after a second peak.

He also admitted that around 5 March he too was signed up to the official plan, supporting the continuation of sports events and essentially continuing business-as-usual with minimal interruptions. 

Jeremy Hunt MP said that this was a “massive failure” on his part for not advising Johnson to change course earlier – with which Cummings agreed. “I bitterly regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did,” he said. “In retrospect, there’s no doubt that I was wrong not to.”

Cummings confirmed that the Government believed that the most serious threat was not to public health, but to the economy. But later under questioning, he denied that this was the case during the early stages of the pandemic – insisting that Johnson’s prioritisation of the economy over health emerged after April.

However, while this narrative vindicates Byline Times’ reporting on the role of business in influencing the Government’s delays to lockdown, it doesn’t quite stack up.

Byline Times was alone in the British media in reporting that herd immunity by natural infection had always been the official strategy of the Government and that this was inextricably tied to an ideology that wrongly pitted the economy against public health. 

This newspaper’s detailed analysis of SAGE documents revealing discussions about social distancing interventions confirmed that scientists were under chronic pressure to consider “the impacts these interventions may have on society, on individuals, the workforce and businesses”. 

Cummings’ confirmation that there had been “no plan” for lockdown or social distancing at all before March is corroborated by Byline Times’ analysis of further SAGE documents from February, which show SAGE dismissing the idea of social distancing or border controls to protect “supply chains”. 

The dismissal of border controls did not come later, but was there from the beginning. Yet, while Cummings tries to exclusively blame scientific group-think, the pressure to think in this way appears to have come from Whitehall priorities. 

Despite SAGE concluding that school closures could reduce an epidemic by up to 60% based on existing scientific evidence, the Government chose not to instruct its scientific advisors to do any modelling of social distancing measures for the UK. The SAGE minutes reveal that, as late as 23 March, the Government remained obsessed with “economic consequences”, “workforce consequences” and ‘lockdown sceptic’-style research to prove “the effects of the interventions on other causes of death” – work which the Treasury was commissioned to undertake.


A Confession Concealing a Stark Deception

Contrary to Cummings’ claims, the SAGE documents suggest that it was this obsession with pitting the economy against public health that helped drive the herd immunity approach. 

Unnoticed and unreported by the rest of the press, a group of SAGE behavioural scientists told the Government on 4 March that “explaining that members of the community are building some immunity will make this acceptable”. This referred to the failure to apply “wide-scale social isolation at the same time as recommending isolation to at-risk groups”.

But, while Cummings insists that it was he, No 10. advisor Ben Warner and Faculty chief Marc Warner (both of whom he had worked with on the Vote Leave campaign) who were instrumental in convincing the Government to change course, he said nothing about their role in cementing the herd immunity ideology at that crucial time. 

In fact, last July, Byline Times revealed that Warner took part in SAGE meetings which involved promotion of a herd immunity approach as early as February – and that the Government knew full well that this approach would lead to mass deaths:

“By 27 February, in a meeting attended by Dominic Cummings’ Downing Street advisor Ben Warner, SAGE updated its assumptions for a reasonable worst-case scenario. It said: ‘80% of the UK population may become infected, with an overall 1% fatality rate in those infected.’ It also added that: ‘Only a proportion of those infected will experience symptoms’.

“Though seemingly innocuous, this is a crucial observation because the Government appeared to believe that a much larger number of people were asymptomatically infected, consistent with the hope that its strategy was potentially heading towards achieving herd immunity.

But it also seemed to have accepted that doing so would come at a huge cost. The Government’s working assumptions indicated an expectation that as many as 500,000 people could die with COVID-19.

“Just a week earlier, Government figures produced by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) had advanced an even worse figure of up to potentially 1.3 million fatalities. Those figures, updated by SAGE on 27 February, showed that the Government estimated that some 37% of people infected would be asymptomatic. 

Despite the Government’s own figures suggesting it was on a path to a colossal scale of death, social distancing measures were not implemented until weeks later when the Government realised that NHS capacity would be overwhelmed.”

In other words, Cummings’ crucial claim that neither he nor the Government anticipated colossal deaths from their herd immunity strategy until 14 March appears to be false. 

The SAGE documents indicate the Government and its scientific advisors recognised the scale of overall deaths a herd immunity strategy would entail, but believed with a “focused protection” approach they would be able to prolong and flatten the peak to spread out these deaths over a longer period of time, preventing the collapse of the NHS – but not necessarily preventing a large scale of deaths over time. 

As we also reported, SAGE minutes confirm – partly corroborating Cummings’ narrative – that as of 5 March the Government was actively pursuing the herd immunity approach. While Cummings admitted before Parliament to buying into the approach by that point, he did not admit his own direct role in establishing the strategy. 

But on 5 March, the SAGE document confirms that Cummings himself had attended a meeting that day with Ben Warner and David Halpern from the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team (who on 11 March publicly promoted a herd immunity approach on BBC News). 

The minutes of the 5 March SAGE meeting reveal that Cummings, Warner and Halpern along with other attendees had all signed off on recommending “social isolation (cocooning) for those over 65 or with underlying medical conditions to delay spread, modify the epidemic peak and reduce mortality rates.” 

Consistent with advice from behavioural scientists relayed the previous day, the Government was simultaneously advised to avoid other social distancing measures such as banning large public gatherings, limiting social interaction in public spaces and school closures. Instead, it was agreed the focus would be solely on “cocooning of older and vulnerable patients”, though this would “start later, and would have to continue longer”.

In this context, Cummings’ insistence that he, Ben Warner and Faculty chief Marc Warner were heroically instrumental in convincing the Government to change course comes into sharp relief.

Cummings and the Warners had previously, along with the Government, accepted the inevitability of long-run mass deaths as a result of their herd immunity strategy, but were committed anyway. This only changed by mid-March when they realised that it would be impossible to control the peak in such a way to avoid a collapse of the NHS, which would have set off a chain reaction of economic and political crisis. This is the “disaster” that forced the Government’s hand: not the prospect of “bodies piling high.”


Complicity in Lies

According to Alex Wickham in Politico, WhatsApp messages from March 2020 show that “while in charge of No. 10, Cummings in fact privately ordered senior Cabinet ministers to deny herd immunity was ever Government policy”. He instead instructed them to say “it was a secondary long-term effect of the ‘mitigation’ policy pursued by the government at the start of the crisis.” 

The messages imply that Cummings’ attempt to distance himself from what he has described as the Government’s “lie” about herd immunity is, itself, questionable. 

All this suggests that Cummings was integral to the Government’s effort to deny its affinity with the herd immunity ideology. This is also suggested by the fact that Cummings had nothing to say about the continued influence of this ideology on Government policy long after March. 

In April we obtained leaked recordings of a Home Office conference call in which deputy science advisor Rupert Shute explicitly told colleagues that it was inevitable “we will all get” COVID-19, that we were likely to get “second, third, fourth, fifth or even more peaks” of the virus, and that people should continue to go to work “as there’s a whole bunch of supply chains and the economy that needs to continue running.” 

BBC News had published transcripts of the same conference call but chose to remove all the sections of the discussion which confirmed that the Home Office official’s comments were virtually indistinguishable from a herd immunity strategy.

In early April, Marc Warner’s Faculty considered running a computer simulation to assess the impact of a policy of “targeted herd immunity” according to an NHS document at the time. Faculty’s lawyers denied that the simulation was run. But Cummings’ unbridled admiration for his former Vote Leave campaign colleagues clearly played a key role in Faculty’s charmed life, having received 14 government contracts in two years, including in relation to creating the NHS COVID-19 Data Store along with data giants Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Palantir.


Test and Trace Failure

Cummings’ silence on the continuation of herd immunity thinking inside Government long after the March about-face is also intriguing.

By 1 May, it was not Cummings but SAGE scientists who were urging the Government to establish a proper test and trace system, and to do so based on best practice examples from South Korea and Germany. 

SAGE was under massive pressure from Government to find a way to lift restrictions once again over “economic” concerns, and the test trace approach was finally recognised as a way to do it – “The ability to test and release contacts is desirable from a behavioural (and economic) perspective,” read the minutes

Instead of manual tracing using local public health teams, the focus was on “app-based tracing”. Both Cummings and Ben Warner participated in this meeting. 

When SAGE repeatedly warned that lifting restrictions too early without a test and trace approach would lead to a devastating second wave – meetings in which Cummings’ favoured surrogate Ben Warner repeatedly participated – these warnings were ignored.

Little appears to have changed months after Cummings left Government. 

In January 2021, Public Health England’s head of immunisation, Dr Mary Ramsay, made a startling admission before Parliament. The UK will need to “allow the disease to circulate in younger people where it’s not causing much harm”, she said, while protecting “the people who are really vulnerable”. This approach is basically indistinguishable from the disavowed “herd immunity by natural infection” strategy.

Cummings’ statements before Parliament have offered a fascinating insight into the catastrophic breakdown of the Government’s sense-making and decision-making capabilities in the face of an unprecedented global crisis. They are no doubt a resounding indictment of the failures that facilitated the outcome of over 120,000 deaths and rock bottom economic performance. 

But they are also far too convenient. 

Cummings has admitted some responsibility for these failures. But he has attempted to deny the mendacious nature of Government decisions which needlessly sought to sacrifice British lives on the altar of business interests. 

This was not merely a systemic failure. It was the outcome of a narrow, conceited ideology that Cummings himself had imported into the corridors of power in Britain and of self-serving decisions that he had personally helped craft. He is now attempting to extricate himself from the disaster that he contributed to. 

He cannot.

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