Former prime minister said he agreed that ‘we should let the old people get it’, today’s Covid inquiry heard
Boris Johnson thought Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”, the official Covid inquiry heard today.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, made the comments in his diary on 14 December 2020, amid a huge Covid wave that led to the third national lockdown and killed 1,000 people a day at its peak.
Vallance claimed Johnson said that a lot of his party “thinks the whole thing is pathetic and Covid is just nature’s way of dealing with old people – and I am not entirely sure I disagree with them”.
The following day, Vallance wrote that the then Conservative chief whip, Mark Spencer, said “I think we should let the old people get it and protect others.” Johnson backed this statement, according to Vallance, allegedly responding: “A lot of my backbenchers think that and I must say I agree with them.”
The comments were made on the same day Johnson hosted a ‘Christmas quiz’ for staff in Downing Street and four days before he issued London and the south-east of England with a ‘stay at home’ order, banning social gatherings.
In an earlier diary entry from 28 August 2020, Vallance wrote that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate and letting the young get on with life and the economy going.”
Rishi Sunak’s efforts to bolster the economy also came under fire at today’s hearing.
Lee Cain, Johnson’s former director of communications, criticised Sunak’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which encouraged people to enjoy discounted meals in restaurants on certain days between 3 and 31 August.
Cain told the inquiry today he was critical of the scheme at the time, feeling that the government was “indicating to people that Covid’s over… crowd yourself onto trains, go into restaurants and enjoy pizzas with friends and family”.
He continued: “That’s fine if you are intent on never having to do suppression measures again but from all the evidence we were receiving, from all of the advice that we were receiving it was clear we were certainly going to have to do suppression again, we knew we were going to do that.”
Boris Johnson’s top adviser complained that he was having to ‘dodge stilettos’ from UK’s most senior female civil servant
Dominic Cummings called the UK’s most senior female civil servant a “c**t” in a misogynistic WhatsApp message sent to Boris Johnson and Lee Cain in August 2020.
He was referring to deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, who had commissioned a report into poor behaviour within the Cabinet Office.
The message in full reads: “If I have to come back to Helen’s bullshit with PET [propriety and ethics] designed to waste huge amounts of my time so I can’t spend it on other stuff – I will personally handcuff her and escort her from the building. I don’t care how it is done but that woman must be out of our hair – we cannot keep dealing with this horrific meltdown of the British state while dodging stilettos from that c**t. [sic]”
Cummings was asked by Hugo Keith, counsel to the inquiry, whether he treated “individuals in Downing Street with offence and misogyny”.
“Certainly not,” the former chief adviser to the PM responded.
“Was that aggressive and foulmouthed and misogynistic approach the correct way to manage fellow professionals?” Keith asked.
Alluding to the ongoing chaos regarding changes in the Cabinet Office at the time, Cummings said: “My language about Helen is obviously appalling and actually I got on with Helen at a personal level. But a thousand times worse than my bad language is the underlying issue at stake.”
The inquiry heard yesterday that MacNamara had commissioned a report into the culture at Number 10 in May 2020, which – according to the lead counsel to the inquiry Hugo Keith KC – had painted a picture of “misogyny” and a “macho” culture.
The report, titled ‘How can No.10 and the CO [Cabinet Office] better support the PM in the next phase’, says that “bad behaviours from senior leaders [are] tolerated” and “No.10 [is] always at war with someone”.
The report also singled out misogynistic behaviour including “junior women being talked over or ignored”.
The report paints a chaotic picture of what No.10 was like in the first months of Covid. MacNamara wrote that it was “not clear what we are trying to achieve”, “no one listens to anyone else” and that it was a “superhero bunfight”.
Cummings had touched on this behaviour in his evidence earlier in the day.
Discussing the Cabinet Office, which he described as a “dumpster fire”, he said: “There was a core problem, which is that private secretaries in the PM’s office are generally quite junior officials. Quite a few of them are young women and, at that meeting on 15 May and on other occasions, some of the young women in the private office said to me that they thought there was a serious problem with senior people in the Cabinet Office not paying attention to what they were saying, talking over them – generally just a bad culture of a lot of the senior male leadership in the Cabinet Office, which is something I agree with.”
Cummings also told Johnson in August 2020 his authority was “seriously damaged”. Cummings referred to cabinet ministers as “feral” and “useless fuckpigs”.
In a WhatsApp message on 23 August 2020, Cummings urged Johnson to sack health secretary Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson.
“I also must stress I think leaving Hancock in post is a big mistake – he is a proven liar who nobody believes or shd [sic] believe on anything, and we face going into the autumn crisis with the cunt in charge of the NHS”, Cummings wrote.
Cummings also said: “Don’t think sustainable for GW [Gavin Williamson, then education secretary] to stay.” Boris Johnson responded saying: “Agree”. Williamson remained in post for over a year after this conversation.
The inquiry also heard yesterday that Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty, the country’s top scientific and medical officials respectively, resisted attempts by top political advisers to “strongarm” them into appearing at the Covid news conference on the same day Cummings was answering questions on the Barnard Castle scandal in the Downing Street garden.
Cummings had been accused of breaking lockdown regulations by driving his family to Durham in March 2020 while his wife had suspected Covid, before taking a family trip to the town of Barnard Castle days later. At the time, all non-essential travel was prohibited and people were allowed to take one short trip outside each day for the purposes of exercise. Cummings claimed at the time that he had been testing his eyesight ahead of the drive home, a suggestion that was widely ridiculed.
Vallance wrote in his diaries: “All highly political and dwarfed by DC [Dominic Cummings]. We tried to get out of it by suggesting that it was not the right day to announce new measures.”
The prime minister’s ‘oscillating’ was partly to blame for a 10-day delay in announcing a national lockdown
Boris Johnson’s inability to make decisions “significantly impacted the pace and clarity of decision-making” in the early days of the pandemic, his former communications director told the Covid inquiry today.
Lee Cain, who worked for Johnson in 2020, said the then prime minister “oscillated” over whether to lock down for ten days after a meeting between senior government figures decided it was both essential and inevitable.
Attendees to the meeting, which took place on 14 March 2020, included Cain, Johnson, and Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings.
In his written evidence to the inquiry, Cain said: “The collective agreement in the room was that a full lockdown was the only strategy which could suppress the spread of Covid-19, save the NHS from collapse and ultimately buy the government more time.”
He continued: “It was only a matter of when, how hard, and how long the lockdown had to be.”
Johnson announced the first national lockdown on 23 March, ten days later. One factor in that delay, suggested Andrew O’Connor KC, counsel to the inquiry, was “indecison on the part of the prime minister”.
Quoting from Cain’s written evidence, O’Connor said: “The system works at its best when there’s clear direction from Number 10 and the prime minister, these moments of indecision significantly impacted the pace and clarity of decision-making across government.”
The inquiry was shown a WhatsApp message sent from Cain to Cummings on 19 March 2020, in which Cain complained he was “exhausted” by the prime minister. Asked by O’Connor why he was felt this way, Cain described Johnson as “challenging”.
Cain said: “Anyone who’s worked with the prime minister for a period of time will become exhausted with him sometimes. He can be quite a challenging character to work with, just because he will oscillate, he will take a decision from the last person in the room.”
O’Connor went on to ask Cain if he felt Johnson was “up to the job” of being prime minister in March 2020.
“It was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,” Cain said, adding: “If you look at something like Covid, you need quick decisions and you need people to hold the course, and you know, have that strength of mind to do that over a sustained period of time and not constantly unpick things.”
In an earlier WhatsApp, Cummings had described Johnson as being in “jaws wank mode” in a meeting with Sunak, a reference to Johnson’s frequent statements that he did not want to be compared to the mayor who closed the beaches in the film Jaws.
Cummings added: “I’ve literally said the same thing ten fucking times and he [Johnson] still won’t absorb it”.
The inquiry also saw messages from 3 March 2020, in which Cain told Cummings that Johnson “doesn’t think [the pandemic] is a big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done and his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking economy into a slump”.
Our investigation reveals secretive funding sources for think tanks that boast of influencing the government
Influential right-wing UK think tanks with close access to ministers have received millions in ‘dark money’ donations from the US, openDemocracy can reveal.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Legatum Institute have raised $9m from American donors since 2012. Of this, at least $6m has been channelled to the UK, according to tax returns filed with US authorities – representing 11% of the think tanks’ total UK receipts, with the figure reaching 23% for the Adam Smith Institute.
In that time, all five have steadily increased their connections in the heart of government. Between them, they have secured more than 100 meetings with ministers and more than a dozen of their former staff have joined Boris Johnson’s government as special advisers.
Representatives from right-wing think tanks – many of whom are headquartered at 55 Tufton Street in central London – frequently appear in British media and have been credited with pushing the Tories further to the right on Brexit and the economy.
As openDemocracy revealed yesterday, ExxonMobil gave Policy Exchange $30,000 in 2017. The think tank went on to recommend the creation of a new anti-protest law targeting the likes of Extinction Rebellion, which became the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
None of these think tanks disclose their UK donors. With the exception of the Adam Smith Institute, none provide any information about the identity of donors to their US fundraising arms.
But an investigation by openDemocracy has identified dozens of the groups’ US funders by analysing more than 100 publicly available tax filings.
The Scottish National Party MP Alyn Smith said that the findings showed that the UK’s lobbying laws were not tough enough.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” he told openDemocracy. “We urgently need to rewrite the laws governing this sort of sock puppet funding so that we can see who speaks for who.”
Last month, Smith asked an IEA representative who funded the think tank on BBC’s flagship question time show.
Among the US-organisations who have donated to UK think tanks are oil companies and several of the top funders of climate change denial in the US.
The think tanks’ US arms received $5.4m from 18 donors who have also separately donated a combined $584m towards a vast network of organisations promoting climate denial in the US between 2003 to 2018, according to research from climate scientists.
The John Templeton Foundation, founded by the late billionaire American-British investor, has donated almost $2m to the US arms of the Adam Smith Institute and the IEA. Researchers claim that the John Templeton Foundation has a “history of funding what could be seen as anti-science activities and groups (particularly concerning climate-change and stem-cell research)”.
The National Philanthropic Trust, a multi-billion-dollar fund that does not disclose its own donors, has given almost $2m to the IEA, Policy Exchange, TaxPayers’ Alliance and the Legatum Institute’s US fundraisers. The trust has donated $22m to climate denial organisations, one of which described it as a “vehicle” for funnelling anonymous donations from the fossil fuel industry.
The Sarah Scaife Foundation, founded by the billionaire heir to an oil and banking fortune, has given $350,000 to the Adam Smith Institute and the Legatum Institute. The foundation is one of the biggest funders of climate denial in the US, contributing more than $120m to 50 organisations promoting climate denial since 2012. Last month, openDemocracy revealed that the foundation, which has $30m in shares in fossil fuel companies, gave $210,525 to a UK climate sceptic group.
Policy Exchange, the influential conservative think tank, published a report in 2019 – two years after taking money from ExxonMobil – claiming that Extinction Rebellion were “extremists” and calling for the government to introduce new laws to crack down on the climate protest group.
New anti-protest laws passed under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act last month appear to have been directly inspired by the report. The Home Office did not deny that it considered the recommendations when approached for comment.
The American Friends of the IEA also received a $50,000 donation from ExxonMobil in 2004, while the main UK branch of the IEA has received donations from BP every year since 1967.
The Legatum Institute has received $154,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2018 and 2019. The foundation was set up by the American billionaire co-owner of Koch Industries, one the biggest fossil fuel companies in the US.
Andy Rowell, co-author of “A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain”, told openDemocracy: “For years, there have been calls for think tanks, who are so often joined at the hip with government, to be transparent and disclose who funds them.
“The fact that so much dark money is behind these groups, and much of it is linked to climate denial groups, is a political scandal that can’t be allowed to continue, especially given our climate emergency.”
In all, US donors account for more than a tenth of the overall income of the IEA, Policy Exchange, Adam Smith Institute and TaxPayers’ Alliance.
While all the think tanks say they do not dispute the science on climate change, many are campaigning to increase the UK’s dependency on fossil fuels and deregulate energy markets in response to the cost of living crisis.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance, Adam Smith Institute and the IEA have all called for the UK’s ban on fracking to be overturned. In April, the government agreed to review the moratorium it had imposed in 2019, when scientists deemed fracking unsafe. The U-turn came after concerted pressure from anti-net zero Tory MPs and lobby groups.
The IEA has also called for the government to approve the opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria, while the TaxPayers’ Alliance has called for the government to scrap green energy bill levies. Tory MP Ben Bradley has cited the TaxPayers’ Alliance in Parliament while claiming that levies will exacerbate the cost of living crisis.
Environmental groups say cutting the levies, which are used to invest in energy efficiency measures and renewable energy, would be self-defeating and merely delay the UK’s longer-term transition away from fossil fuels.
Johnson’s think tank cabinet
Right-wing think tanks like the IEA have come to play an increasingly influential role in shaping British politics, despite the lack of transparency around their funding.
The IEA has boasted that 14 members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet – including the home secretary Priti Patel, the foreign secretary Liz Truss and the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, are “alumni of IEA initiatives”.
Ministers have recorded 26 meetings with the think tank since 2012, but there may be additional, undeclared private meetings. In 2020, Truss, who was then the secretary of state for trade, failed to declare two meetings with the IEA, arguing that they were made in a personal capacity.
Mark Littlewood, the director of the IEA, has boasted of securing access to ministers and MPs for his corporate clients, including BP, telling an undercover reporter in 2018 that he was in “the Brexit influencing game”.
Others like Policy Exchange, which was co-founded by the ‘levelling up’ secretary Michael Gove, can claim to have had some of their policy ideas taken up by the government.
Gove’s recently announced plan to allow residents to vote on whether to allow developments on their street was first proposed by Policy Exchange last year. Campaigners said the plan will not help increase the supply of affordable housing.
Several of the think tanks were accused by a whistleblower of coordinating with one another to advocate for a hard break from the European Union following the referendum vote.
Shamir Sanni, a former pro-Brexit campaigner who worked for TaxPayers’ Alliance before going public with his claims, alleged that the organisation regularly met with the IEA, the Adam Smith Institute to agree on a common line on issues relating to Brexit.
Sanni subsequently won an unfair dismissal case against the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The organisations he identified have all denied they act as lobbyists or coordinate.
Rich as fekk, privately educated at ridiculously expensive public schools, owns many properties worldwide, cut benefits, helped cause the 2008 financial crisis, has a hedge-fund company called Theleme ! registered in the Caymen Islands, unknown business dealings, his missus Murty is richer than the Queen, has strong links to right-wing think-tanks, employs slick PR.
Last week, in a largely unreported decision, Rishi Sunak quietly announced that private equity owned companies would now be eligible for government bailout loans.
This means that fabulously rich private investors like Blackstone, CVC Capital Partners, Apax Partners, Permira Adviors, and Bridgepoint will have access to government business support schemes such as the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS) and coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme (CLBILS).
In many ways, this aligns with the government’s broader strategy towards COVID support schemes: they are primarily designed to support ‘business’. And this means that although some jobs may or may not be saved, this is incidental. The main aim is to preserve the corporate economy.
Overall the Budget seems designed to fuel a two-tier recovery, where the winners from the pandemic prosper at the expense of everyone else. Ultimately, the effect is to shift the cost of the pandemic onto those who can afford it least. In practice this is disproportionately the young, women and ethnic minorities.
OpenDemocracy is taking legal action over the Cabinet Office’s ‘Orwellian’ Clearing House that vets FOI requests and could breach data protection law
openDemocracy is going to court to force the British government to release full details about its controversial ‘Clearing House’– a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, which is accused of blocking sensitive Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
In November, openDemocracy revealed that the ‘Orwellian’ unit in the Cabinet Office was vetting FOI requests and sharing personal information about journalists across Whitehall in ways that experts believe could be in breach of the law.
The Cabinet Office has refused to disclose full details about the Clearing House operation under the Freedom of Information Act – despite the FOI watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, ordering it to do so in July 2020.
Now openDemocracy is going to an information tribunal in a bid to force transparency on the Clearing House.
On Thursday 29 April, a first-tier tribunal will hear the case. openDemocracy has instructed Leigh Day, a firm of public law specialists, to argue its case and has received support from across the British media.
New year to all my readers. I wish you a successful and productive year – like I will have – unless you’re a Tory or Republican, Fascist, Racist, Xenophobe or a climate crisis-denying ignoramus. [ed: apologies that I forgot to exclude misogynists.]
We have to make some real progress on the Climate Crisis this year – at least Scotland is a good example. [2/1/20 Hopefully Murdoch will be dead soon.]
I’m hoping to pay a lot of tax for this year. I’ll probably still kick ass even if that doesn’t happen. I’ll also be being more sexy – easy enough: get fitter, lose a little weight, have sex. I don’t doubt that many people want to take me out. I’ve been so skint lately that an evening out has been shopping at a discount supermarket. I’m open to suggestions of all sorts but please keep it green e.g. no flying involved.
I’m starting my Biac* project today. More on that later.
*Boris is a …
4/1/20 I’m tagging something minor on here for the benefit of those who are keen to connect apparently unconnected events. I was burgled in 2019 and was woken by an uninvited strange man in my bedroom at 6.30am. (and the answer is no chance;) 4/1 later: I may be mistaken about this and it’s not important anyway ;)