17 March 2021

Cummings says Covid response held back by EU and ‘smoking ruin’ department

17 March 2021

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was reduced to a “smoking ruin” by the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has said.

In his first public appearance since leaving No 10 last year amid the fallout from a bitter internal power struggle, Mr Cummings gave the damning assessment of its attempts to procure PPE in the early weeks of the crisis.

Giving evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he said the vaccination programme had only been a success because it was taken out of the hands of civil servants and given to a newly created taskforce.

As the country emerges from lockdown there should be an urgent, very, very hard look... at what went wrong and why

“As the country emerges from lockdown there should be an urgent, very, very hard look by this building (Parliament) at what went wrong and why in 2020,” he said.

“One of the most obvious lessons of that is the incredible value potentially in getting science and technology stuff right (and) the disaster that can come if you don’t get it right.”

Mr Cummings, a long-standing critic of the Civil Service, said that when the pandemic struck the UK last year, there had not a single entity capable of making decisions at “scale and pace” when it came to funding the science.

He said that one of the key lessons to come out of the crisis was the need to go to “extreme lengths to try to de-bureaucratise the normal system”.

It should be going off to people on the far edges of the science world and talking to them about what is really valuable

“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.”

He said that when it came to the vaccination programme, he and the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had urged Mr Johnson to create a dedicated taskforce.

“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.

“We also had the EU proposal which looked like an absolute guaranteed programme to fail – a 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’.”

Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Wire)

Downing Street defended the response of the DHSC to the pandemic pointing to its achievement in establishing “one of the biggest diagnostic networks in UK history”.

“Covid challenged health systems around the world,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“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.

“DH and the NHS were central to the rollout of the vaccination programme.”

The Prime Minister’s press secretary Allegra Stratton, whose appointment reportedly sparked the row which led to Mr Cummings’ departure, added: “Dominic Cummings was a valued member of the Prime Minister’s staff.

“He was the chief of staff, he was an enormously important player in the Prime Minister’s team and what he chooses to do is his business.”

In his evidence, Mr Cummings said that the pandemic had underlined the need for an independent agency to fund innovative scientific research which he had been working on before he was ousted from No 10.

Under Government plans the Advanced Research & Invention Agency (Aria) will have a £800 million budget to invest in “high risk, high reward” projects.

Mr Cummings said that if it was to be a success it would need “extreme freedom” to act, stripping out all the “horrific bureaucracy” around Whitehall procurement and Treasury rules.

“It should be going off to people on the far edges of the science world and talking to them about what is really valuable,” he said.

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