Boris Johnson's chaotic indecisiveness delayed lockdown measures, two of his top advisers have said, as it was alleged he believed coronavirus was "nature's way of dealing with old people".
Dominic Cummings told the COVID inquiry on Tuesday how the "dysfunctional system" during a "meltdown of the British state" failed to deal with the crisis, as the former Prime Minister downplayed the pandemic.
Lee Cain, who served as No 10's communications director, criticised Mr Johnson's tendency to "oscillate" between decisions for holding up the Government's response.
The UK COVID-19 Inquiry saw diary entries from Sir Patrick Vallance saying Mr Johnson was "obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life" and getting the economy running.
"Fatalistic" Attitude Swept Through Government
Mr Cummings, who was Mr Johnson's chief adviser, took aim at much of the Government during the "nightmare" of the pandemic as he gave evidence at the west London inquiry. Appearing in an unironed shirt, he described the Cabinet Office as a "bomb site" and a "dumpster fire" and said a "fatalistic" attitude swept through Government early in the pandemic response.
Mr Cummings said vulnerable groups such as ethnic minorities and domestic abuse victims were "entirely appallingly neglected" during lockdown considerations. He said that "one of the most appalling things" was the lack of a shielding plan in March 2020 "and the Cabinet Office was trying to block us creating a shielding plan".
Mr Cain repeatedly cited Mr Johnson's tendency to "oscillate" between decisions as delaying the crisis response.
Principal inquiry lawyer Hugo Keith KC asked Mr Cummings whether the trolley term was used to describe Mr Johnson's propensity to change direction. "Pretty much everyone called him a trolley, yes," Mr Cummings said.
He suggested in written evidence that Mr Johnson was guilty of "wild oscillations" over lockdown. Mr Cain, a long-term adviser to Mr Johnson who worked with him on the Brexit campaign, said his former boss's erratic decision-making was "rather exhausting".
'Jaws' Mayor Johnson Wanted to Keep the Beaches Open
Messages between him and Mr Cummings showed them venting their frustrations on WhatsApp. "Get in here he's melting down," Mr Cummings wrote on March 19 2020, days before the first lockdown, adding that Mr Johnson was "back to Jaws mode". Explaining the Jaws reference, Mr Cain told the inquiry that Mr Johnson would refer to the mayor from the Steven Spielberg film "who wanted to keep the beaches open".
"I think he had a routine from previous in his career where he would use that as a joke from one of his after-dinner speeches," he said. "The mayor was right all along to keep the beaches open because it would have been a long-term harm to the community – so it's a sort of sub-reference to that."
Mr Cain was more cautious than Mr Cummings by avoiding saying their old ally was not up to the job as prime minister. "I think at that point – and it's quite a strong thing to say – what would probably be clear in COVID is it was the wrong crisis for this prime minister's skillset," Mr Cain said.
A message from Mr Cummings sent on 3 March 2020 said Mr Johnson did not believe COVID was a "big deal and he doesn't think anything can be done". He wrote to Mr Cain that "his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it'll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking (the) economy into a slump".
Twenty days later, on 23 March, Mr Johnson ordered the UK into lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Mr Cain's written evidence showed that Mr Johnson and others agreed in a meeting on 14 March that year that a full lockdown was the only way to save the NHS from collapse. Asked if that was a longer-than-desired wait until the lockdown was announced, he said: "Yes, but I think you also have to consider it's quite a big undertaking to lock down the entire country."
Ex-PM Suggested COVID Was Nature Dealing with the Elderly
Sir Patrick, the Government's chief scientific adviser during COVID-19, wrote about his own frustrations in dealing with Mr Johnson in his diaries. The adviser wrote in August 2020 that Mr Johnson was "obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going".
"Quite bonkers set of exchanges," he said, referring to the "PM WhatsApp group".
Then, in December 2020, Sir Patrick wrote that Mr Johnson said he believed he had been "acting early" and that the "public are with him (but his party is not)".
"He says his party 'thinks the whole thing is pathetic and COVID is just Nature's way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them. A lot of moderate people think it is a bit too much'."
Messages shown to the inquiry showed that in October 2020, Mr Johnson stressed the need to "recalibrate" away from a nationwide lockdown because it was mainly elderly people dying.