LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser will on Wednesday cast his former boss as a dithering leader surrounded by fools whose ineptitude led to a “disastrous” response to the most devastating global pandemic in decades.
With almost 128,000 deaths, the United Kingdom has the world’s fifth worst official coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) toll, and Mr. Johnson was slow to appreciate the significance of the threat from the virus in early 2020 as it spread from China towards Britain’s shores.
Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the 2016 Brexit campaign and Mr. Johnson’s landslide election win in 2019, will be quizzed by British lawmakers from 0830 GMT on the lessons that can be learned from the pandemic.
Mr. Cummings, who left the government late last year, has said the British health ministry was a “smoking ruin,” that Western governments failed during the crisis, and that the secretive British state was woefully unprepared for the pandemic.
“The COVID plan was supposed to be ‘world class’ but turned out to be part disaster, part non-existent,” Mr. Cummings said on May 18 in one of dozens of tweets forming a critique of Britain’s response.
“If we’d had the right preparations + competent people in charge, we would probably have avoided lockdown1, *definitely* no need for lockdowns 2&3,” he said.
Mr. Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film Brexit: The Uncivil War, casts the British state as an outdated system run by incompetent amateurs who are resistant to any innovation that would bring them closer to the modern world.
British officials, he said, failed to learn the early COVID lessons from Asia, were resistant to new ideas from young scientists, overly secretive, overly bureaucratic and lacked any real scrutiny from a compliant domestic media.
Asked about Mr. Cummings’ criticism, Mr. Johnson’s spokesman said: “At all times we have been guided by the data and the latest evidence we had.”
In a series of investigations, Reuters has reported how the British government made several errors: it was slow to spot the infections arriving, it was late with a lockdown and it continued to discharge infected hospital patients into care homes.
The government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said in March 2020 that 20,000 deaths would be a good outcome. Soon after, a worst-case scenario prepared by government scientific advisers put the possible death toll at 50,000. The toll is now close to 128,000.
Mr. Johnson has admitted that mistakes were made and that lessons need to be learned, but his ministers say they were working at pace in the biggest public health crisis in a century.
Mr. Johnson has pointed to Britain’s vaccination program as a success that will allow the economy to rebound before its peers.
Britain has the world’s fifth fastest vaccination program, based on shots per 100 people, behind the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Bahrain, and Chile. — Guy Faulconbridge/Reuters