Dominic Cummings says advice from University of Cambridge mathematician helped change government handling of Covid-19 pandemic
Advice from a University of Cambridge mathematician influenced a critical change in the government’s disastrous early thinking over how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Dominic Cummings.
The Prime Minister’s former chief adviser said the thoughts of Professor Sir Timothy Gowers in March 2020 helped to convince him that the official policy was “catastrophically wrong” and a lockdown was needed to contain Covid-19.
Giving evidence to a House of Commons health and social care and science and technology committees on Wednesday (May 26), Mr Cummings said Sir Tim’s thoughts - along with those of DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis and data scientists Ben and Marc Warner - gave him “confidence” to tell the Prime Minister that the approach being pursued must change without delay.
He said was “terribly sorry” it took so long to reach that conclusion - and claimed that “tens of thousands” of extra Covid-19 related deaths were caused by the government's delays and failings during the crisis.
Had individuals such as Sir Tim been involved from January, the government could have realised the error of its ways “six weeks earlier”, Mr Cummings suggested.
He said he began sharing documents from Sage (the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) with Sir Tim around March 9.
By the evening of March 13, he realised a meeting was needed to tell Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “We’re going to have to ditch the whole official plan, we’re heading for the biggest disaster this country has seen since 1914.”
The “official plan” until that point had amounted to shielding the elderly and vulnerable, and that a lockdown would simply lead to a peak of cases later, potentially in the winter when the NHS was already under pressure.
In March, more than 50,000 fans packed into Anfield to watch a Champions League match between Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, while hundreds of thousands went to the Cheltenham Festival of horse racing.
“The fundamental assumption remained, we can’t do lockdown, we can’t do suppression, because it just means a second peak later,” said Mr Cummings.
But there were also warnings coming in that were not swiftly heeded.
“I started getting people coming to me around the 25th of February - very smart people - saying ‘America is completely screwing this up. You should be really aggressive. Don’t listen to all these people saying there is no alternative. I’m personally starting to take preparations. I’m buying things. We’re going to have lockdown etc etc’.
“But the official view all the way through the first half of March and into the week of the 16th March was that would all be more dangerous.
“I was really torn about the whole thing. In the first 10 days of March, I was increasingly being told by people ‘I think this is going wrong’. But I was also really, really worried about smashing my hand down on a massive button marked ‘Ditch the official plan, stop listening to the official plan, I think there is something going wrong’.”
He admitted: “We obviously should have locked down essentially at the first week of March, at the latest.”
Mr Cummings finally listened to the warnings after sharing the government data and documents with Sir Tim, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who works in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at Cambridge, and has expertise in analysis and combinatorics.
The PM’s former adviser told the committee: “One of the other reasons why I finally had the confidence to say that the system had gone catastrophically wrong was, I also got in touch with a guy called Prof Tim Gowers at Cambridge, who is a Fields Medallist. He is one of the smartest people on the planet. I got in touch with him and I started sharing Sage documents with him in the week of the 9th - I can’t remember the exact date.
“People like him and then shortly afterwards Demis Hassabis at [AI company] DeepMind, who I also started sharing documents with and talking to, they actually could understand these things. So the combination of Marc Warner, Hassabis and Tim Gowers - you had three incredibly able people who could understand the technicalities in the way that I couldn’t do, saying this to me and that gave me the kind of confidence to say to the Prime Minister we should change.
“But it’s obvious in retrospect that I just left this whole thing until far, far too late and I’m terribly sorry about that. I should have done this in January, is the reality of it.
“That was a big part of it.”
The Prime Minister finally announced the country’s first lockdown on March 23, 2020.
Mr Cummings said the government’s official position was slow to turn around because those in positions of power had failed to get advice from outside sources.
“It was literally a classic historical example of groupthink in action. That’s what happens in closed, groupthink bubbles. Everyone just reinforced themselves,” he said.
“The more people from the outside attacked, the more internally said ‘ah well, they don’t understand, they haven’t got access to all this information’.
“What is unarguably the case is that part of my job was... in situations like this... to challenge things.
“Although I did do it here, I obviously did not do it early enough.
“If this process had been opened up to outside scientific scrutiny and other smart people’s scrutiny… because remember a lot of people who had figured out the answer to this were quantitative people but who were not epidemiologists and disease specialists. They were people like Hassabis, they were people like Gowers, they were people like Mark Warner.
“If we’d opened the process up to them in January and put all of these assumptions out on the table, we’d have figured at least six weeks earlier that there was an alternative plan.
“This whole thing of ‘well you’ve only got a choice of that peak, or delay and then that peak, is complete garbage. In fact, the plan that we put to the PM on the 14th we could have developed that six weeks earlier. I failed and I apologise for that.”
The detail of what Sir Tim told Mr Cummings was not divulged in the session, but late last March the mathematician posted some of his thoughts on his blog, in an article titled ‘How long should a lockdown-relaxation cycle last?', which showed how he applied mathematical modelling to the scenario.
During the marathon session, Mr Cummings also claimed Mr Johnson dismissed the pandemic as a “scare story” or the new “swine flu” in early 2020.
Mr Johnson also ignored scientific advice when faced with calls for a circuit breaker in September, before saying he would rather see “bodies pile high” than announce a third lockdown, Mr Cummings said.
And he claimed Mr Johnson was not a “fit and proper person” to get the UK through the pandemic.
He said the Prime Minister was more concerned about the impact on the economy than the need to curb the spread of coronavirus in the weeks leading up to the first lockdown.
And he was scathing about the response of the Department of Health and Social Care, claiming Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been fired.
The former adviser, who left Downing Street last year after a behind-the-scenes power struggle, told the MPs: “The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed.
“I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that.”
In a series of explosive claims, Mr Cummings said:
- The government was not operating on a “war footing” in February 2020 as the global crisis mounted, with the Prime Minister on holiday and “lots of key people were literally skiing”.
- It was suggested chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty should inject Mr Johnson with the virus on live TV to show it was nothing to be scared of.
- Herd immunity from people catching the disease was thought to be inevitable because there was no plan to try to suppress the spread of the virus.
- Then cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill told the Prime Minister to go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying “it’s like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that’s how we get herd immunity by September”.
- He praised deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, who in March also voiced concerns about the lack of a plan, claiming she told him: “I think we are absolutely f*****, I think this country is headed for disaster, I think we’re going to kill thousands of people”.
- The Prime Minister rejected scientific advice for a lockdown in September, instead opting to “hit and hope”.
Mr Cummings said that by the end of October 2020 his relationship with Mr Johnson had deteriorated to the extent that “fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job and I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions”.
The former aide said he was trying to push other things through against Mr Johnson’s wishes.
“If you took anybody at random from the top 1% competent people in this country and presented them with the situation, they would have behaved differently to how the Prime Minister behaved,” Mr Cummings said.
Asked if he had heard Mr Johnson said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than impose another lockdown on the nation, Mr Cummings said: “I heard that in the Prime Minister’s study. That was not in September though, that was immediately after he finally made the decision to do the lockdown on October 31.”
Mr Cummings said the planned public inquiry, due to start in spring 2022, was too late.
“Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die,” he said.
“There is absolutely no excuse for delaying that because a lot of the reasons for why that happened are still in place now.”
While Mr Cummings was giving evidence, Mr Johnson was facing MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Prime Minister said: “To go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing for a country, to deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult, and we have at every stage tried to minimise loss of life, to save lives, to protect the NHS and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can.”
In response to Mr Cummings’ “swine flu” claim, the Prime Minister said: “I don’t think anybody could credibly accuse this government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point.”
Under questioning from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, the Prime Minister did not deny a suggestion that he said words to the effect of “Covid was only killing 80-year-olds” as he resisted a second lockdown.
Mr Johnson said that would be a matter for the public inquiry to look into, adding: “I am absolutely confident that we took the decisions in the best interests of the British people”.