Boris Johnson was presented with the “wrong crisis” as prime minister in coronavirus as he frustrated advisers by oscillating between decisions, the official inquiry has heard.
Johnson dithered between wanting a lockdown and adopting his Mayor of Jaws “routine”, advocating keeping the country out of lockdown, the UK Covid-19 Inquiry was told on Tuesday.
Lee Cain, his long-term adviser who served as No 10’s communications director in the pandemic, said Johnson’s erratic decision-making was “rather exhausting”.
Messages between Mr Cain and Dominic Cummings, who served as the then-prime minister’s chief adviser, showed them venting their frustrations on WhatsApp.
“Get in here he’s melting down,” Cummings wrote on March 19 2020, days before the first lockdown, adding that Johnson was “back to Jaws mode wank”.
“I’ve literally said same thing ten f times and he still won’t absorb it,” he added.
Explaining the Jaws reference, Mr Cain told the inquiry that Johnson would refer to the mayor from the Jaws film “who wanted to keep the beaches open”.
“I think he had a routine from previous in his career where he would use that as a joke from one of his after-dinner speeches,” he said.
“The mayor was right all along to keep the beaches open because it would have been a long-term harm to the community – so it’s a sort of sub-reference to that.”
Mr Cain was more cautious than Cummings by avoiding saying their old ally was not up to the job as prime minister.
“I think at that point – and it’s quite a strong thing to say – what would probably be clear in Covid is it was the wrong crisis for this prime minister’s skillset,” Mr Cain said.
“Which is different, I think, from not potentially being up for the job of prime minister.”
Explaining his wrong crisis theory, Mr Cain said his former boss would “often delay making decisions” and “change his mind on issues” after seeking advice from multiple sources.
In Brexit, that was a “great strength”, he argued, but in Covid “you need quick decisions and you need people to hold the course and have the strength of mind to do that over a sustained period of time and not constantly unpick things”.
A message from Cummings sent on March 3 2020 said that Johnson did not believe Covid was a “big deal and he doesn’t think anything can be done”.
He wrote to Mr Cain that “his focus is elsewhere, he thinks it’ll be like swine flu and he thinks his main danger is talking (the) economy into a slump”.
Twenty days later, on March 23, Johnson ordered the UK into lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Mr Cain’s written evidence showed that Johnson and others agreed in a meeting on March 14 that year that a full lockdown was the only way to save the NHS from collapse.
Asked if that was a longer than desired wait until the lockdown was announced, he said: “Yes, but I think you also have to consider it’s quite a big undertaking to lock down the entire country.”
Back in his written evidence, Mr Cain said one challenge was that Johnson would “occasionally oscillate between lockdown and other potential policy options”.
“The system works at its best when there is clear direction from No 10 and the prime minister, and these moments of indecision significantly impacted the pace and clarity of decision-making across Government,” Mr Cain’s statement said.
Mr Cain conceded that the Government got the assessment of the virus “wrong” before it arrived in the country in early 2020.
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