After years spent largely dwelling in the shadows around Westminster, Dominic Cummings is poised to give potentially explosive and damning testimony on the government’s handling of coronavirus.
Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, whom the prime minister and cabinet protected at all costs for his trips to Durham and Bernard Castle during the first national lockdown, will face senior MPs on two parliamentary select committees on Wednesday.
His appearance could be another “nuclear Dom” – as his recent interventions have been dubbed by some in Westminster – and will come one year and a day since the infamous and unprecedented press conference he gave from No 10’s rose garden to explain his trips.
What should we expect?
Cummings was ordered out of Downing Street by the prime minister in mid-November 2020, so has had plenty of time to mull over misgivings about how ministers and officials handled the outbreak of Covid-19, implemented lockdowns and devised strategies for reopening society.
He announced in a blog post last month that he would give a tell-all testimony to two parliamentary committees investigating “lessons learned” from the pandemic. Cummings signalled he would be happy to hand over key documents as evidence and made clear his disdain for Johnson – saying he had fallen “so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves”.
Reports have said Cummings will “shoot to kill” during the evidence session, and speculation has risen that he may provide evidence to substantiate damning claims against Johnson and the government with alleged recordings he made during his time in No 10.
In the past few days, the former Vote Leave director has been rapidly firing off tweets that may offer some insight into what he will say on Wednesday.
He has insisted that herd immunity was the UK government’s initial plan to respond to Covid-19, saying public documents backed up his claims and a denial by the health secretary, Matt Hancock,’ “bullshit”. He said the strategy was only ditched when ministers feared it would lead to mass deaths and an economic “implosion”.
Cummings added: “Critical as I am of the PM in all sorts of ways, it’s vital to understand the disaster was not just his fault: the official plan was disastrously misconceived, [the Department of Health and Cabinet Office] did not understand this or why, & a PlanB had to be bodged amid total & utter chaos.”
How will the session work?
The hearing is scheduled to last three hours – though it could go on longer. Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, two Tory MPs and former cabinet ministers who chair the health and social care and science and technology select committees, respectively, will take turns leading the questions – with follow-ups from other backbenchers.
Some crucial decisions for which the government has been muchcriticised are likely to feature; among them: the UK’s border policy, the timing of lockdowns and other restrictions, as well as procurement, testing and contact tracing.
Other issues on the agenda to be put to Cummings include decision-making in the months leading up to the first lockdown, what scientific evidence was available to the government and the effectiveness of public health communications.
The last topic will prove particularly thorny for him, given research found there was a clear and lasting “Cummings effect” on public confidence in the government’s handling of coronavirus after his lockdowns trips.
Cummings will also likely be asked about reported claims Johnson declared “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands” – in a meeting ahead of deciding whether to introduce a second national lockdown in England, weeks later than recommended by the government’s scientific advisers, known as SAGE.
How worried is the government?
Concern is mounting among Conservative figures about what Cummings may have to say.
Some are relatively relaxed, given they believe his reputation is severely damaged given the massive public backlash for his lockdown trips, and so think whatever he has to say will not carry much weight.
Others think that with the public inquiry not due to begin until Spring 2022, Cummings will make sensible points about lessons not being learned quickly enough for a potential fourth wave of the virus if variants emerge and derail Johnson’s roadmap.
Westminster insiders quietly wonder what efforts the government will make to clear Cummings’ interventions from the top of the news agenda – with a mooted cabinet reshuffle strongly denied by No 10, and the announcement of a wedding date for Johnson and his fiancee, Carrie Symonds, over the weekend.