Breaking news just before PMQs: Cummings texts show Boris Johnson calling Matt Hancock ‘totally hopeless’

Boris Johnson described Matt Hancock as “totally fucking hopeless” during the early stages of the pandemic, concerned by the health secretary’s promises on testing, text messages published by Dominic Cummings have revealed.

Jessica Elgot 

Writing on Substack, the prime minister’s former chief aide published a slew of texts and documents from emergency Cobra meetings that he said would combat what he called “lies” from Downing Street and the health secretary about the initial handling of the pandemic.

Cummings had been asked to hand over documents to a select committee inquiry into the pandemic but did not meet the committee’s deadline before Hancock gave evidence last week.

In his post, Cummings said:

  • Johnson considered removing all responsibility for PPE from Hancock and putting Michael Gove in charge.
  • No strategy for full lockdown was modelled until 14 March, and he published documents predicting 250,000 deaths in the first wave.
  • Johnson told “rambling stories and jokes” during emergency meetings and refused to ask awkward questions from officials.
  • Johnson intends to quit after the next election in order to make more money.

Cummings said Hancock had come up with a “new version of reality” that he had been responsible for pushing the increase in testing capacity, and that the health secretary had been pursuing the abandoned single-peak, herd immunity strategy until 16 March.

“Testing, like vaccines, was removed from his control in May because of his incompetence and dishonesty,” Cummings wrote on Substack.

He said Hancock told No 10 that the supply of PPE was “all under control” in the week of 23 March, which Cummings said was a false assurance and meant weeks were wasted that could have been used to source equipment.

“If No 10 is prepared to lie so deeply and widely about such vital issues of life and death last year, it cannot be trusted now either on Covid or any other crucial issue of war and peace,” he wrote.

“Hancock continues to have direct responsibility for things like dealing with variants and care homes. Having such a secretary of state in a key role is guaranteed disaster. It is urgent for public safety that he is removed.”

He said Johnson had been “encouraging ministers to give false accounts to parliament” and that the public inquiry would not sufficiently hold the prime minister to account. He said Johnson intended to quit two years after the next election in order to “make money” and move on from politics.

“So we either live with chronic dysfunction for another five years or some force intervenes,” he wrote.

WhatsApp messages published by Dominic Cummings.

WhatsApp messages published by Dominic Cummings. Photograph:

Cummings said he had been torn about publishing private WhatsApp messages but Hancock had challenged him at the select committee to provide evidence and suggested his account was false.

In text messages published on the blog, Cummings said Hancock had told the morning meeting on 24 March there would be 10,000 tests a day by 30 March and 100,000 a day within a month.

On 26 March, the day Johnson tested positive for Covid, Cummings texted the prime minister saying Hancock’s testing plans were in chaos and that the health secretary would not meet his 10,000 tests pledge.

According to the picture on Cummings’ blog, Johnson wrote: “Totally fucking hopeless.”

The prime minister repeated his view of Hancock’s performance in a number of other messages, according to Cummings.

Cummings said that when he returned to work on 13 April 2020 following his own Covid illness and trips to Durham and Barnard Castle, it became clear that Hancock’s promise that people would be tested before being moved from hospitals to care homes had not been implemented, and that “there was still no plan to do so”.

A similar “nightmare” was also under way with the procurement of ventilators, according to Cummings. He said a health department official told him they had been turning down machines because prices were rising. Attaching a WhatsApp purportedly from Johnson, he said the prime minister pointed the finger of blame at Hancock, saying “he has been useless”.

Whatsapp messages purportedly between Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings

Whatsapp messages purportedly between Johnson and Cummings. Photograph:

In another series of WhatsApp messages released by Cummings, Johnson apparently told his aide on 27 April that PPE procurement was a disaster, adding: “I can’t think of anything except taking Hancock off and putting Gove on.”

Cummings said he told Johnson on 3 May: “I think we are negligently killing the most vulnerable who we are supposed to be shielding and I am extremely worried about it,” because testing was still not being properly distributed to care homes. He said the prime minister agreed Hancock’s “failures and dishonesty made him unfit for his job” but refused to take any action.

Even by the start of May, Cummings said, the government had still not adopted a “wartime mentality” and when the prime minister chaired important meetings, Johnson would ramble and tell jokes.

“As soon as things get ‘a bit embarrassing’ [he] does the whole ‘let’s take it offline’ shtick before shouting ‘forward to victory’, doing a thumbs up and pegging it out of the room before anybody can disagree.”

As well as text messages from Johnson, Cummings also published a Cobra document from early March that argued for herd immunity by September to avoid a second peak in the winter and more pressure on the NHS.

The document did not include the possibility of a full “stay at home” lockdown strategy and suggested there would be 250,000 people dead after the “optimal single peak strategy”, with herd immunity by September.

Cummings said he told Johnson on 14 March 2020 that many more than 250,000 would die. “I said the public would march up Downing Street and lynch him,” Cummings wrote.

He published whiteboard plans shown to the PM by himself and Ben Warner, a data scientist, urging a shift to a lockdown strategy on 14 March as well as mass testing and increasing NHS capacity. Cummings said that was the first time a lockdown scenario was modelled.

Hancock told MPs that a plan for suppression was published on 3 March – the contain-delay-mitigate strategy. Cummings said the document was based on the logic that the UK would not implement any suppression measures.

“Obviously this embarrassingly awful document, which will be remembered as a case study in failure for decades to come, in no sense set out what we actually did, as everybody can see,” he said. “That ‘plan’ was sending us to catastrophe so we ditched it.”