A government in denial, wracked by abuse and infighting—and utterly incapable of producing a plan to deal with the deadly pandemic.
Those are just some of the conclusions from two days of evidence to the UK Covid Inquiry from the elite of Downing Street.
On Tuesday it was the turn of Dominic Cummings, former prime minister Boris Johnson’s top aide. He was accused of “aggressive, foul-mouthed and misogynistic” abuse after WhatsApp messages were shown to the inquiry.
The messages between him and the prime minister showed Cummings tried to sack senior civil servant Helen MacNamara. She had commissioned a report that highlighted misogynistic and macho behaviour, including “junior women being talked over or ignored”. Cummings said No 10 was “dodging stilettos from that cunt”.
In a bid to save their reputations, Johnson’s top team turned their fire on their boss. Cummings—an utterly untrustworthy right winger, guilty of the Tories’ Covid crimes—is driven by revenge and self-promotion after Johnson sacked him in 2020.
Cummings and Lee Cain, the former No 10 director of communications, questioned Johnson’s suitability for leading the country during the pandemic. Cain said he didn’t have the “right skills set”.
But it was always more than Johnson’s personal failings that meant that Britain had one of the highest Covid deaths rates of all major economies.
Johnson’s chaotic thinking combined with his party’s aversion to state intervention—and the belief that some people’s lives were more valuable than others. It was that mix which meant the government delayed vital lockdown measures amid the biggest ever public health emergency.
Johnson, it was said, told senior advisers the Covid virus was “just nature’s way of dealing with old people”. Unmoved by pictures of devastated doctors and nurses working on Covid wards, Johnson said he was “no longer buying” the fact the NHS was overwhelmed.
The former chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, in his diaries described a “bonkers set of exchanges” with Johnson. He appeared “obsessed with older people accepting their fate” and letting young people get on with their lives, he said.
And witnesses revealed that there was no understanding of how the virus hit people from ethnic minorities and those on low pay and benefits hardest. It meant there was no plan to protect them.
Those that raised the question in Downing Street were routinely dismissed. When shocking figures showed the huge gap between black and white Covid deaths, the group of rich white men deciding on Britain’s Covid policy had no response.
As the inquiry heard of mounting failings, Cummings also turned his guns on the cabinet. He said they—and the secretary of state for health—were “largely irrelevant” to Covid policy in 2020. More than that, he said in his messages, they were “useless fuck pigs”, “morons” and “cunts”.
“Hancock is unfit for this job,” he wrote. “The incompetence, the constant lies, the obsession with media bullshit. Still no fucking serious testing in care homes his uselessness is still killing god knows how many.”
Despite the language, that is a description of Hancock that a great many people will agree with.
It was, after all, Hancock that ordered hospitals to discharge thousands of untested patients from hospitals into care homes. This ensured the epidemic would lay to waste thousands of vulnerable people.
Bereaved families reacted to the fresh evidence with horror. Susie Flintham, a spokesperson for Covid 19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, slammed the “nastiness, arrogance and misogyny at the heart of government during the pandemic”.
She said these were “core to the awful decision making that led to thousands of unnecessary deaths and tore families like mine apart”. “When you see that these figures had such a shocking disregard for each other, you can only imagine the disregard they had for families like mine,” she said.
Sean Leahy from Coventry shares that view. His mother died alone in a care home after months in which Covid restrictions prevented him from visiting her. “None of my family could see mum from the end of January. We followed the Covid rules strictly because we took the pandemic really seriously,” he told Socialist Worker.
“We knew how dangerous it was, so we understood why we couldn’t visit. But then you find out about the way those at Downing Street were behaving, Partygate and so on, and now today’s revelations. It just shows they have nothing but contempt for ordinary people.”
Sean’s mother died on 9 March 2020. He says his family will never know whether it was from Covid or not. Doctors at the time were being pressured to list the causes of death in care homes as “old age” rather than the virus.
Evidence to the inquiry showing that Johnson was happy to let older people get the virus and die, doesn’t shock Sean. “For the Tories, it’s all about profit, isn’t it?” he says, “Once you’re no longer working, you’re not producing it, so you’re surplus to requirements.
“That’s why they never tested people coming out of hospitals and into care homes. They simply didn’t value their lives.”
In his final WhatsApp message to Cummings, Johnson described the infighting in Downing Street as a “disgusting orgy of narcissism”.
And in his evidence, Cummings spit back. He told the inquiry of how the “dysfunctional system” in Downing Street during a “meltdown of the British state” had failed to deal with the crisis.
In truth, the state did what it always does—it looked after the interests of commerce, capital and the ruling class.
But the particular variant of pro-corporate, pro-privatisation policies that infects Britain’s elite made the crisis here far worse than it should have been. Today’s evidence has at last shone a light on how the complete failure of Britain’s Covid policy came to be. But there is much, much more of this to come.