Boris Johnson was eager to expedite the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions as a means of diverting attention away from the controversy surrounding Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown rules.
The Mirror had initially reported that Cummings had undertaken a 264-mile journey from London to his parents’ residence in Durham, despite displaying symptoms of the virus.
Diary entries from Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, made public by the Covid Inquiry, shed light on Johnson’s desire to shift the focus. On May 25, just two days after the Mirror’s exposé, Vallance noted Johnson’s determination to accelerate the easing of restrictions, even beyond what he and his colleagues deemed prudent. It was evident that the Prime Minister sought to steer the narrative away from the Cummings incident. Vallance expressed his concerns, stating, “All very worrying. Cabinet all upbeat and ‘breezy confidence’ – incredibly alarming.”
Sir Patrick Vallance also detailed attempts by high-ranking officials from No10 to pressure him and Professor Sir Chris Whitty into addressing the media amidst the controversy over Cummings’ lockdown breach. However, they were hesitant, fearing it would undermine their credibility.
The press conference held by Cummings in the Downing Street garden in an attempt to defend himself was described by Vallance as a “car crash” and “rambling.” Cummings admitted to driving his family to Barnard Castle, a beauty spot 30 miles away, during his time in Durham. He contended that this was necessary to ensure his eyesight was suitable for the longer journey back to London.
In subsequent diary entries, Vallance expressed frustration with Johnson’s erratic leadership style. In July 2020, he remarked, “The ridiculous flip-flopping is getting worse – maybe as he recovers?” A few months later, in September of that year, he observed, “He is all over the place and completely inconsistent. You can see why it was so difficult to get agreement to lockdown 1st time.”
During the Covid Inquiry, Martin Reynolds, Mr. Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary, described Dominic Cummings as “the most empowered chief of staff Downing Street has seen.” Reynolds suggested that Cummings’ influence created tensions within Downing Street that proved to be a distraction during the pandemic. This included Cummings’ efforts to bring unconventional individuals into No10 as aides and his list of senior civil servants he aimed to remove.
Reynolds was questioned about a report he and Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara authored in May 2020, which raised concerns about “macho behavior” in Downing Street. He agreed that the document pointed to “dysfunctionality, lack of discipline, chaos, and a significant degree of misogyny” within the government. The report highlighted instances where junior women in No10 were either talked over or disregarded.
Dominic Cummings is scheduled to provide testimony to the Covid Inquiry on Tuesday.