Ministers are reeling from Dominic Cummings’ evidence. The former adviser to the Prime Minister gave explosive testimony against Boris Johnson and his government yesterday in a seven-hour evidence session to the health and select committees. He took aim at the conduct and competence of Matt Hancock, and alleged wilful negligence and complacency on the part of his former boss. Committee members heard that Johnson downplayed Covid as “the new swine flu”, wanted to be injected with the virus on live TV to prove it was not harmful, did say the infamous “bodies pile high” comment and that the PM is “unfit” for office.
Cummings argued Hancock should have been fired for “at least 15 to 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions”. He told committee members that he had called for the Health Secretary to be sacked “almost every day” for alleged “criminal” behaviour, offering examples of lies over personal protective provision, care homes and NHS treatment. Jonathan Ashworth described the evidence session as a “shocking testimony revealing chaos, lack of grip, incompetence and an abdication of leadership at the very top of government” and said the Health Secretary must come to parliament to answer the allegations. Hancock faces MPs at 10.30 – stay tuned for updates.
Keir Starmer challenged Johnson over some of the evidence in PMQs. Asked whether it was true that Cummings, as well as the Cabinet Secretary and other senior officials, urged the PM to sack Hancock, Johnson denied the claim. He notably did not refute the allegation, trailed before the evidence session, that he argued “Covid is only killing 80-year-olds” when delaying lockdown last autumn. Johnson also said nobody could “credibly” say the government had been complacent. A problematic claim, to say the least; remember when the PM boasted about shaking hands “with everybody” in a hospital where there were confirmed Covid cases? He accused Starmer of being “fixated on the rear-view mirror” – a reasonable fixation given that 130,000 people lie dead behind the proverbial car – and insisted that the government had simply “got on with the job” of protecting people.
While the Westminster bubble is positively giddy over Cummings’ evidence, polling suggests the public were less impressed. According to Redfield & Wilton research, just 21% think the testimony can be trusted while 57% think he is not reliable source. Opinium put the figure for those who trust the former adviser lower, at 18%, while YouGov polling suggested only 14% think he is telling the truth. But Labour is hoping people will take notice of a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic response, where the sole witness will not be an angry ex-employee.
The party has called for the inquiry to be brought forward. Starmer argued during PMQs for it to take place this summer – rather than next year as announced. Angela Rayner upped the ante this morning. The deputy Labour leader said the inquiry “should start immediately” and also called for ministers to publish an internal ‘lessons learned’ review that has already been carried out. “There’s serious questions for today, not just about what happened in the past, but how we protect our loved ones today,” Rayner said. “And if the government were wilfully neglectful, knowing they were going to put lives at risk, people need to know that now.” Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.