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Dominic Cummings: Health secretary's 'stupid' targets delayed building UK test and trace system to combat COVID

Former spin doctor talks of mess in response to crisis

The UK’s Health Secretary put plans to create the test and trace system to combat the spread of COVID-19 back by more than month by needlessly introducing his own targets, the Prime Minister's former advisor claims.

Having been persuaded in March 2020 by a mathematician, an AI expert and the founder of Google’s Deep Mind to try to get UK government to abandon its herd immunity strategy, Dominic Cummings, the former Brexit master-mind and Boris Johnson's spin doctor, said the need for a national test and trace system became obvious.

“You've got to deal with the fundamental argument that you've got a second wave coming in the autumn, so of course, then we were going to have to build a test, track and trace system from essentially Ground Zero,” Cummings yesterday told a meeting of Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee.

Challenged by MPs as to why it took two months to set up the test and trace system, Cumming said: “In lots of ways the whole core of government fundamentally fell apart,” when the prime minister went into hospital in April.

Cummings said during that time, Health Secretary Matt Hancock decided to push ahead with his own test and trace system.

“In my opinion, disastrously, the Secretary of State had made, while the prime minister was on his near deathbed, this pledge to do 100,000 [tests per day] by the end of April. Now, this was really an incredibly stupid thing to do because we'd already had that goal internally, we'd already had conversations 10 days earlier to say, we should be ramping up testing… and it shouldn't just be 100,000, we should be heading for a million tests a day or more, but that means building the kind of architecture and foundations to do all this properly,” Cummings said.

[We] agreed we had... to take testing away from Hancock and put it in a separate agency, so ... Hancock couldn't interfere with it, theoretically

Cummings was himself stricken with coronavirus during this period, famously "testing his vision" at Barnard Castle. He said he returned on 13th April and was getting calls, as was Number 10, to say that Hancock had been directing proceedings to hit his "stupid target by the end of the month.

“We had half the government with me in number 10, calling around frantically saying don't do what Hancock says, build the thing properly. We had Hancock calling them all saying, ‘Down tools on this… so that I can hit my target’. Now, in my opinion, he should have been fired for that thing alone,” Cummings said.

The PM’s former advisor declared that the whole of April was then disrupted because different parts of government tried to operate in different ways.

“That was one of the reasons why the cabinet secretary and I agreed that we had, essentially, to take testing away from Hancock and put it in a separate agency, so they could say, here's a separate person responsible directly to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, [and] Hancock couldn't interfere with it, theoretically,” Cummings said.

In early May, Baroness Dido Harding, christened the queen of carnage for her hacking-marred tenure at the helm of TalkTalk, was appointed to lead the NHS Test and Trace service and given a budget of up to £37bn.

The UK’s test and trace system eventually launched in May with a glitchy website. It was considered bad value for money by MPs. The development of an associated smartphone app was also beset with delays, with the official team forced into a U-turn on its approach to the technology, eventually adopting a system first proposed by Apple and Google.

There was no earlier urgency for the strategy in February because, with the herd immunity strategy, more people would get the disease than would be feasible to test and trace, Cummings had said earlier yesterday.

The former advisor made pointed criticism of Hancock earlier in the meeting, accusing the health secretary of lying during government meetings.

The health secretary is due to appear before the committee, presumably to put forward his version of events. ®

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