COVID-19: Department of Health was ‘smoking ruin’ at start of coronavirus crisis, says Dominic Cummings
The health department was a "smoking ruin" in the early days of the COVID pandemic, the prime minister’s former chief aide has told MPs.
Dominic Cummings revealed how the UK’s vaccine programme was moved out of Matt Hancock‘s Department of Health and Social Care following the problems health officials had in buying protective equipment for NHS staff.
He made the comments in explosive evidence to the House of Commons’ science and technology committee, in his first public remarks since his dramatic departure from Number 10 last year.
Mr Cummings also claimed:
• The government’s procurement system before 2020 was an "expensive disaster zone" and when the coronavirus pandemic hit it "completely fell over"
• Parliament should hold an "urgent" inquiry into the COVID crisis and MPs should take a "very, very hard look" into "what went wrong and why in 2020"
• He made four demands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson prior to joining his Number 10 staff, including sorting out the "disaster zone" of Whitehall
• He did not ask for a pay rise from the prime minister before leaving Downing Street and had previously taken a pay cut
• He did not watch this month’s budget, adding: "I don’t really have any idea what was in it"
Commenting on the UK’s vaccination programme, Mr Cummings told MPs that Number 10 "took it out of the Department of Health" when they decided to create a separate taskforce.
"It’s not coincidental the vaccine programme worked the way that it did," he said.
"It’s not coincidental that to do that we had to take it out of the Department of Health, we had to have it authorised very directly by the prime minister and say ‘strip away all the normal nonsense that we can see is holding back funding in therapeutics’."
Mr Cummings added: "In spring 2020 you had a situation where the Department of Health was just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that.
"You had serious problems with the funding bureaucracy for therapeutics, that was the kind of context for it.
"Patrick Vallance (the government’s chief scientific adviser) then came to Number 10 and says ‘this shouldn’t be run out of the Department for Health, we should create a separate taskforce’.
"We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail debacle.
"Therefore Patrick Vallance, the cabinet secretary, me, and some others said ‘obviously we should take this out of the Department of Health, obviously we should create a separate taskforce and obviously we have to empower that taskforce directly with the authority of the prime minister’."
Following Mr Cummings’s evidence to the committee, a Department of Health source stressed that Mr Hancock’s officials worked to get the vaccine taskforce established as part of a "massive team effort".
"Everyone in DHSC was and is spending their time focused on saving lives, expanding the world leading vaccine rollout and getting through this pandemic," they added.
Mr Cummings, who masterminded the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum, has also told the committee that "one of the most obvious lessons" of the COVID crisis was the government should "go to extreme lengths to try to de-bureaucratise the normal system".
"In February, March, April last year, there was no entity in the British state – zero entities, including the prime minister himself – who could make rapid decisions on science funding minus horrific EU procurement, state aid etc, etc laws," he said.
"No entity in the British state that could operate at scale and at pace and that was obviously disastrous."
Mr Cummings was also quizzed about the government’s plans for a new "high-risk, high-reward" scientific agency he had spearheaded while in Downing Street.
The £800m Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) is modelled on America’s long-running Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA).
Answering questions on how he got Mr Johnson to agree to ARIA’s creation, Mr Cummings told the committee: "Essentially what happened was the prime minister came to speak to me the Sunday before he became prime minister and said ‘would I come into Downing Street to try and help sort out the huge Brexit nightmare’.
"I said ‘yes, if – first of all – you’re deadly serious about actually getting Brexit done and avoiding a second referendum’.
"’Second, double the science budget, third, create some ARPA-like entity and, fourth, support me in trying to change how Whitehall works and the Cabinet Office work because it’s a disaster zone’.
"And he said ‘deal’."
Mr Cummings added the July 2019 meeting between himself and Mr Johnson was attended by only the two of them, and took place in his living room.
After he left Downing Street in November last year amid a bitter power struggle between Number 10 staff, it was revealed he had received a pay rise of at least £40,000 while working for the prime minister.
But Mr Cummings told MPs that "media reports about me getting a pay rise after COVID are wrong".
"It is true I interfered with the pay system regarding my own pay," he added. "That was in summer 2019 – when I arrived I was put on the normal pay band for my position of 140-something thousand.
"I said that I didn’t want that and I only wanted to be paid what I was paid at Vote Leave. I figured that I should be paid the same for trying to sort out the Brexit mess as I’d been paid for doing Vote Leave.
"So I asked for a pay cut, which is what happened in summer 2019."
But Mr Cummings added when he was rehired by Number 10 after the general election in December 2019, he "moved back onto the normal pay grade for my position".
Responding to Mr Cummings’s evidence to the committee, Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "This is a scathing intervention from Boris Johnson’s former right hand man and most trusted aide.
"To describe the Department of Health and Social Care as a ‘smoking ruin’ is a clear admission of fundamental mistakes that have contributed to us tragically experiencing one of the highest death rates in the world."
Downing Street said the prime minister did not share Mr Cummings’s description of the Department of Health as a "smoking ruin".
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said: "COVID challenged health systems around the world.
"From the outset, it was always our focus to protect the NHS and save lives.
"I would point to what was achieved last year in terms of establishing one of the biggest diagnostic networks in UK history, in terms of increasing the number of tests we are able to undertake every day.
"We have procured over nine million items of PPE, we have established the NHS Test and Trace system which has contacted millions of people and asked them to isolate.
"The Department of Health and the NHS were central to the rollout of the vaccination programme."