No 10 de­nies Cum­mings had ‘let old peo­ple die’ strat­egy

The Guardian - - News | Coronaviru­s - Peter Walker Po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent

Down­ing Street has re­jected as “a highly defam­a­tory fab­ri­ca­tion” a claim that Boris John­son’s chief ad­viser, Do­minic Cum­mings, ini­tially ar­gued against strict measures to con­tain the coron­avirus in a view sum­marised as “if that means some pen­sion­ers die, too bad”.

In an un­usual on-the-record de­nun­ci­a­tion, a Down­ing Street spokesman said the claims about Cum­mings’ viewpoint, made in a Sun­day Times ar­ti­cle, had not been put to No 10 in ad­vance and con­tained “in­vented” quotes.

The re­port claimed that at one pri­vate event at the end of February, Cum­mings out­lined the gov­ern­ment’s strat­egy at the time in a way that was sum­marised by some of those present as “herd im­mu­nity, pro­tect the econ­omy, and if that means some pen­sion­ers die, too bad.”

The al­le­ga­tions, which have been widely shared on­line, con­nect with wider crit­i­cisms that the gov­ern­ment re­sponse to the virus was ini­tially too weak, based on a no­tion that, rather than lim­it­ing its spread, enough peo­ple could be al­lowed to con­tract it to give pop­u­la­tion-wide “herd im­mu­nity”.

While the phrase “herd im­mu­nity” was used by gov­ern­ment fig­ures such as Sir Pa­trick Val­lance, the chief sci­en­tific ad­viser, No 10 has de­nied it was ever a tac­tic. How­ever, the use of the phrase il­lus­trated ini­tial ten­sions within gov­ern­ment over how to bal­ance the eco­nomic im­pact of a full na­tional lock­down against the po­ten­tial num­ber of deaths from the virus.

Ac­cord­ing to the Sun­day Times re­port, the key mo­ment came on 12 March when a group of gov­ern­ment ex­perts gath­ered to ex­am­ine mod­el­ling of the spread of the virus car­ried out by aca­demics at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don and else­where.

This pre­dicted that if no ac­tion was taken more than half a mil­lion peo­ple would die, and that even some lim­ited mit­i­ga­tion ef­forts would only halve this. The Sun­day Times re­port said this changed the mind of Cum­mings, who be­fore had been an ad­her­ent of the herd im­mu­nity idea.

After the 12 March meet­ing, Cum­mings changed his view and be­came one of the strong­est ad­vo­cates in gov­ern­ment for tough re­stric­tions to curb the spread of the virus, the Sun­day Times said.

It quoted one anony­mous se­nior Con­ser­va­tive as say­ing: “He’s gone from ‘herd im­mu­nity and let the old peo­ple die’ to ‘let’s shut down the coun­try and the econ­omy’.”

The Down­ing Street spokesman said: “This is a highly defam­a­tory fab­ri­ca­tion which was not put to No 10 by the Sun­day Times be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. The ar­ti­cle also in­cludes a se­ries of ap­par­ent quotes from meet­ings which are in­vented.”

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