LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s health ministry was a “smoking ruin” last year that failed to secure adequate protective equipment and other supplies early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former top aide said on Wednesday.
Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser until November, said Britain’s more recent success in rolling out a rapid inoculation programme was the result of a decision to shift vaccine procurement from the ministry to the prime minister.
His comments to a parliamentary committee were among his first public remarks on the coronavirus response he helped lead, and could cause political headaches for Johnson.
The health ministry was “just a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE and all of that”, Cummings told lawmakers.
“It’s not coincidental that the vaccine programme worked the way it did, it’s not coincidental that to do that we had to take it out of the Department of Health,” he said.
“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 the sense that Number 10 took it out of the Department of Health.”
Health minister Matt Hancock glossed over questions about Cummings’ comments at a later news conference, saying the roll out of vaccines had been “a huge team effort”. Johnson’s spokesman said he disagreed with Cummings’ description.
But Jonathan Ashworth, opposition Labour’s health policy spokesman, said his description was “a clear admission of fundamental mistakes that have contributed to us tragically experiencing one of the highest death rates in the world”.
Cummings, a divisive figure who was the architect of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, was appointed senior adviser in 2019 after Johnson turned to him for help to deliver his promise to “get Brexit done”.
He told lawmakers on Wednesday he had taken the job to help “sort out the huge Brexit nightmare” in return for Johnson agreeing to increased science funding, the creation of a scientific research agency and civil service reform – causes the government is pressing on with despite Cummings’ departure.
Cummings said his exit had been planned, though British media reported at the time it was a result of clashes with others in Johnson’s 10 Downing Street office.
Britain has suffered one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world from the pandemic, but in recent months it has rolled out the fastest vaccine programme of any large country. The government says it is on track to have given a first COVID-19 shot to half of all adults in the next few days.
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Michael Holden and Sarah Young; Editing by Peter Graff and Gareth Jones)