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Former prime minister Boris Johnson was “not in charge” in the lead-up to the pandemic and allowed his chief adviser Dominic Cummings to “run” the government, former health secretary Sajid Javid has told the official Covid inquiry.
Javid said on Wednesday that he believed an inexperienced team of cabinet ministers was deliberately assembled in order to “centralise power” and enable Cummings to make key decisions.
Downing Street was “dysfunctional” in the lead-up to the crisis, said Javid, who ran the Department of Health and Social Care between 2021 and 2022, to an extent that he had “not experienced before in any government”.
Javid is the latest in a series of high-profile figures to put forward damaging revelations about the Johnson government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis at the public Covid inquiry.
The inquiry is examining the government’s response to Covid-19, including the UK’s preparedness when the disease struck in 2020 and senior decision-making. It is due to run until the summer of 2026.
Javid abruptly quit as UK chancellor in February 2020 after he refused demands from Number 10 to sack his team of advisers but was appointed as health secretary by Johnson in 2021.
He told the inquiry on Wednesday that he had taken the decision after concluding that Johnson had given Cummings too much responsibility and power over important government decisions.
In his witness statement, Javid wrote: “I would say during my time as chancellor I considered he [Cummings] sought to act as the prime minister in all but name and he tried to make all key decisions within Number 10 — not the prime minister.
“I felt that the elected prime minister was not in charge of what was happening in his name and was largely content with Mr Cummings running the government.”
Senior ministers serving in Johnson’s cabinet were chosen “with a preference for loyalty over experience”, which “caused difficulties” during the pandemic, Javid told the inquiry.
Decisions were often made “from the centre” at the last minute because of a lot of back and forth between departments with differing views, he added.
Former deputy prime minister Dominic Raab told the inquiry on Wednesday that he did not agree with Javid’s assessment of Cumming’s role. “I just don’t accept the characterisation that there was some sort of puppet regime,” he said.
The inquiry was also shown an email exchange in which former deputy chief medical officer Dame Jenny Harries said discharging Covid patients into care homes would be “entirely clinically appropriate” in March 2020.
Nearly 20,000 Covid-linked deaths in care homes in England and Wales were registered in the first three months of the pandemic, according to official data.
In emails from March 16 2020, Harries wrote to Rosamond Roughton, an official at the health department, who had raised concerns over the NHS becoming “clogged up with people who aren’t acutely ill”.
Harries, now chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, wrote: “Whilst the prospect is perhaps what none of us would wish to plan for, I believe the reality will be that we will need to discharge Covid-19 positive patients into residential care settings for the reason you have noted.
“This will be entirely clinically appropriate because the NHS will triage those to retain in acute settings who can benefit from that sector’s care.”
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