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Covid / Inquiry snippets
I’ll post below thoughts on giving evidence and other things from the Inquiry.
I’ll keep hacking this page around until the witnesses have finished, then tidy it up and leave it.
UPDATE 8/12. I’ve rejigged the page — put all updates on covid in chronological order and put all non-covid snippets together at the bottom. I’ll add Sunak next week.
Next week is BISMARCK WEEK — subscribers will have 400 pages of case study on the ultimate example in high performance to read over Xmas…
The Inquiry is very depressing but not surprising. I told Boris in summer 2020 on no account do a normal public inquiry run by lawyers taking years. It’s even worse than I feared. Hugo Keith keeps missing key points. He’s allowed scientists to claim they thought X pre-14/3 when they said on TV the opposite of X. He’s failed with every key witness to get to the heart of the critical questions and clearly misunderstands the fundamental point about the switch from Plan A to Plan B. He even declared this week (with typical pomposity) that THE central point ‘matters not’ to the Inquiry. Generally the Inquiry mirrors many of the failings of the original debacle. We may have another pandemic before it’s finished and when it does report it will be totally confused about the toxic culture of the Cabinet Office and make things even worse — even more toxic HR bullshit will be imposed which killed thousands in 2020!
The media still hasn’t twigged that they thought (reasonably) that we are at least getting for our hundreds of millions a team looking at all the government emails that were kept — but this is WRONG! The focus on WhatsApps means the hacks haven’t grasped this key point. So after years of the Inquiry and a duff report, nobody will have gone through critical emails. A sensible government would give the entire evidence archive to an AI team and have them spit out an open source model — a model that would have read every line of evidence, impossible for any human — which the public could interrogate. This would yield far more wisdom that Keith…
The most critical points I’ve noticed:
1/ ‘Chickenpox parties’ was being pushed (even on 12/3) on the country’s most senior official by the official directly responsible for pandemic planning and response!
By far the most important bit of evidence to have emerged as ‘new’ so far was DHSC Permanent Secretary Chris Wormald revealing that the person responsible for pandemic planning — HIM! — was the one pushing ‘chickenpox parties’ on the most senior official (Sedwill), who a few hours later on 12/3 suggested to the PM (in the PM’s study) that he advise the country to organise pox parties… (Per my evidence, I told Sedwill to stop using this analogy and Ben Warner explained why. This was a critical moment in our appreciating how badly wrong the system had gone.)
And Wormald’s defence of this to the Inquiry was — I was just echoing SAGE!!
As predicted, and exactly as you would expect if following my blog for a while, there is a 100% news blackout on this story from all the main media organisations.
I revealed the pox parties nightmare in 2021. It was dismissed as a lie by No10. It took until now for the truth to come out. It’s less shocking when you realise than even on 18/3 Wormald was still fighting a switch to Plan B — see his emails of 18/3 to the Cabinet Secretary (disclosed in my evidence), about which he was not asked by the Inquiry (!!) and the media has ignored. I.e one of the most critical bits of evidence is entirely unmentioned in the Inquiry.
It’s also incredibly revealing that Wormald was also trying to stop physicist/data scientist Ben Warner attending SAGE — the same Ben Warner who had to explain to the Cabinet Secretary why the pox parties being pushed by Wormald were a disastrous idea!
The icing on the cake of this is that Wormald’s defence of this fiasco is that he was trying to apply the lessons of a previous public inquiry on Iraq!! I wonder if this has sunk in with the Inquiry staff?!
2/ I, a spad, had to create an ad hoc system to coordinate central government’s response in week of 9/3 because the Cabinet Office hadn’t seen the scale of the crisis and its own inability to cope with it — it was totally overwhelmed and didn’t appreciate it was overwhelmed. The Cabinet Secretary’s response in an email of 11/3/20 (published as he gave evidence) was to call our desperately needed action an attempt at ‘dictatorship’.
This explains a huge amount about the abject failures and why it was so hard for No10 to fix the Cabinet Office — they didn’t realise they needed fixing and fought against being fixed.
Before going to No10 I said repeatedly the Cabinet Office/COBR system would collapse in the next big crisis. After pushing and pushing in February, finally in desperation in the week of 9/3 I set up a system in the Cabinet room to bring together key people and figure out key problems and work needed at 8am before the PM meeting at 9am. This evolved into the central institution for handling the crisis (its name changed a few times).
3/ Insiders generally and the media, naturally, are trying to absolve the civil service of the charges of ‘boosterism’ and ‘sexism’. But it was the Cabinet Office and DHSC who ran around Jan-Feb saying ‘we’re the best prepared in the world’, ‘world beating pandemic plan’ etc — NOT VOTE LEAVE!
We were saying increasingly loudly ‘err this sounds delusional!’
Further, the semi-accurate comments from Helen about sexism around the centre are a description of the culture in the Cabinet Office, for which she was the second most senior official, about which I complained at the time as did young women working in No10.
You will see that the network of mainstream Tories like Osborne, the BBC et al are all very hard at work trying to hide these critical things from themselves and the voters.
‘The system is working as intended.’
This from @BristOliver (Director of Statistics Institute at Bristol) is almost the only thing I've seen that understands my evidence session & the critical points…
Helen’s evidence, 1/1
Helen right that the Cabinet Office has failed to follow the orders given in 2020 to keep records of everything. I asked for this to happen. So did Helen. Yet the Cabinet Office has destroyed a lot of documents - e.g some documents that I have accidental copies of do not show up in official records.
Agree with Helen that the ‘world beating’, ‘we’re best prepared in world’ etc mindset was a nightmare, delusional. I’d go further than has and say this general approach definitely undermined an effective response. But also important to note - this was not just Boris, this was the attitude of *DHSC and Cabinet Office* on pandemic preparations too.
Helen is saying what I said — *the Cabinet Office had no plan for how the centre would run the crisis*. Everybody was assuming that No10/Cabinet Office would be running crisis response. But the Cabinet Office thought it was just ‘coordinating’ other parts of government running the response. THIS HAS STILL NOT SUNK IN IN SW1!!
Helen confirms my account to MPs in 2021 — denied by No10 at the time — was true. From my statement:
The Deputy Cabinet Secretary, Helen, walked in and said (per my memory May 2021): ‘I have just been talking to the official Mark Sweeney, who is in charge of co-ordinating with the Department for Health. He said “I have been told for years that there is a whole plan for this. There is no plan. We are in huge trouble.” I have come through here to the Prime Minister’s office to tell you all that I think we are absolutely fucked. I think this country is heading for a disaster. I think we are going to kill thousands of people. As soon as I have been told this, I have come through to see you.’
Helen confirms (also in her statement para 65) what Imran and I said about DHSC over 14/15 March — that Hancock was still saying ‘stick to the plan’, i.e the disastrous Plan A that had to be ditched, and DHSC trying to DELAY measures.
My memory on prisons is different to Helen. The reason for the delay on prisoners was because Buckland wanted to let out some of the worst violent criminals! This was elevated to the PM as it would obviously be a massive big deal. The PM stopped this. In my opinion, Boris was right on this.
Per my statement on protecting No10. I pushed for testing and temperature checks for No10 and Cabinet Office before the first wave. Cabinet Office blocked. I went to PM. He sided with CABOFF. Why? They feared it would be a ‘bad media story’. Peak SW1…
Re my terrible language referring to Helen and others… Yes, my language is bad. But it’s mental to focus on my language rather than the fact that the Cabinet Office *was killing people* by pulling people out of emergency covid work to deal with Cabinet Office HR fuckups and ludicrous legal cases about the fuckups of the first wave! Kafka does not do this justice. And I guess this will never be addressed by the Inquiry. Too mental for people to get their heads around…
[I missed her after lunch testimony and will listen later. From her statement… I’ll ignore all the Hancock lying stuff, this is now definitively established and no need to bang this drum further.]
She says No10/CABOFF lacked expertise on exactly how the NHS worked. There was a very good official (Malcolm Reid) who understood it well and Imran was outstanding but I generally agree.
NARRATIVE VIOLATION ALERT! DEPUTY CABINET SECRETARY SAYS NO10 WORKED *BETTER* WHEN I WAS THERE AND GOT ‘LOT WORSE’ AFTER I LEFT. You will not be reading this in the Telegraph, Mail, Times et al! Or the Institute for Government, which told everyone after I left ‘now the grownups are in charge’! The IfG spins disinformation for the worst parts of Whitehall… IFG tried to claim in 2021 that the ‘operational’ performance of Whitehall in covid was great! (para 183)
She was Deputy Cabinet Secretary, she thought there was a ‘third gear’ for crisis response. It did not exist.
‘I was hesitant about giving Dominic Cummings further ammunition about inadequacies in the Cabinet Office or DHSC or other problems’ (Para 50).
‘Among the leadership of the department there was a failure to appreciate that the Cabinet Office would not be spectators but authors of how the country would cope.’
She says she only really grasped the Plan A herd immunity concept when she saw the deputy CMO brief it to Labour on 13/3.
On 14/3 DHSC was still pushing to delay measures.
HMT resisted joining joint units. (This is 100% on brand for HMT which regards itself as actually in charge of the country and not really subject to the PM’s authority.)
‘The second and related issue was that modern government is not really in charge of the country - there is not a great machinery that No 10 sits atop of with large levers to pull.’ (para 125). Black irony to see the #2 official repeat the #1 Vote Leave rule of government!
Unfortunately the Inquiry did not go into the debates about reorganising the Cabinet Office with either me or Helen. But this was critical and remains critical as these arguments are live today. The Cabinet Office remains a dumpster fire. I’ll say much more but for now…
The central point about her evidence is — her priority in summer 2020 was trying to rebuild the conventional system, ‘Cabinet government’ etc. She is right this had deteriorated over years and collapsed in spring 2020.
This partly explains growing tensions with me.
The idea that ‘restoring Cabinet government’ — i.e Potemkin government — was the answer to the worst crisis since 1945 was crazy.
The ministers weren’t up to it.
The PM could not do it.
It was anyway far too big to be effective even if the first two problems had not existed.
The PM did not want to do it!
She wanted to rebuild the old system.
I thought — I said before covid the old system would collapse in the next crisis, it’s collapsed, we need to build something new.
In my statement there are numerous long documents about this debate.
Helen makes some errors of fact.
A. She thinks the High Court judgment on No10 forcing procurement of polling stands and she does not realise the Court of Appeal struck it down and confirmed my behaviour was lawful as well as reasonable. She thought No10 should have admitted fault. Wrong at every level.
B. She thinks Sedwill created XS (strategy) and XO (operations). For better or worse this was my idea as I explain in my statement (and see my email on my first day in No10 to Sedwill, 24/7/19). I based this on Eisenhower’s changes to the NSC. It wasn’t perfect but it was a big improvement. Sedwill agreed and made this happen, and he also agreed with using the model for covid.
Stevens evidence, 2/11
Stevens is right that the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’ tool was confusing and confused people. NB. this is still in place and, I think, the problems remain.
He’s right that even if you imagine the bed blockers issue perfectly resolved, it did not remove the scenario of possible NHS collapse in spring or winter 2020.
NB. Hancock has said I was trying to fire Stevens during covid. Per my statement this is false. Hancock told me in 2019 before the election that Stevens wanted to move on in 2020. I was pushing for swift resolution rather than the usual endless delays that would leave the NHS in limbo. Obviously this was ditched when Wave 1 hit.
Now we know where ‘chickenpox parties’ came from — the official in charge of pandemic planning and response, Wormald!
Even given my views on Whitehall, it’s amazing that we found out today that the person pushing “chickenpox parties” was the Permanent Secretary of the DHSC — the man and department in charge of running the pandemic response.
Not only that, he stresses he was pushing this in ‘every meeting’.
And he complains ‘they don’t quite get it’.
This explains soooooo much about why so much was a disaster.
This, though, makes clear you cannot blame Boris for everything in Wave 1 — as I’ve said before.
I expect this bombshell to get little media attention as it screws the civil service.
Wormald was asked:
Why were you, Sir Christopher, still wedded to the mitigation herd immunity approach in the face of the emerging scientific evidence, the advisory evidence commissioned by your own department?
Wormald replied that he was only echoing SAGE!!
I would refer you to the very clear scientific advice from the body that was charged with drawing up the consensus, which was SAGE, via the government's Chief Scientist, given to COBR on this very day endorsing that strategy.
Now, I was very, very loose in my reply, I was answering the exact question at the end of Mark's text that we should be focusing on protecting the most vulnerable.
But, as I say, what Mark sets out there is pretty much exactly, as I say, what we were hearing from SAGE and what the Government Chief Scientist presented at the COBR meeting on that day, so it wasn't an unusual position here, and I accepted, as I've said, I agreed with the SAGE advice.
We also know from Vallance’s statement and my statement that Vallance was highly unpopular with the Cabinet Secretary and Wormald after he, with me, argued for a change of strategy to Plan B on the evening of 15/3 in the Cabinet Room to the PM. Wormald claimed to the Inquiry that he did not reprimand Vallance, but Vallance has contemporary notes and I was told similar at the time.
It’s also very revealing that Wormald claims that he was ‘unaware’ of the views and complaints from the two most senior officials in the country, and many dozens of others in No10 and Cabinet Office, of Hancock’s constant lying.
Is Wormald lying? Or did the senior officials demonstrate extreme incompetence in not discussing such a central issue from March?
I suspect it’s Wormald using tricky language in his responses to avoid technically lying while actually giving the Inquiry a false picture. It’s unlikely that Sedwill and Helen did not raise Hancock with Wormald.
Also remember, Hancock may have a LOT of dirt on Wormald…
Re the Cabinet Office. It is generally thought in Westminster that it’s there to enforce the PM’s will but it does not see itself in this role! It sees itself as the enforcer of some superposition between the Cabinet’s will and its own bureaucratic imperatives. The best expression of this is Robin Butler’s amazingly frank admission to the Lords Committee in 2010 (cf. my statement).
This is even more true now than in 2010 because a) it has acquired more power, particularly over the deep state (intel agencies etc) and b) this power has slipped from all ministerial view (including the PM). I put this in my statement but obviously Hugo Keith was, like the media, much more interested in my swearing in rage about how the Cabinet Office was pulling people out of meetings on vaccines and testing to deal with its 2019 cockups, thus dooming more to death in Wave 2, than in how power is exercised, so these issues were barely touched on — much to the Establishment’s happiness.
[Added evening of 8/11]
I was going to watch this today and comment but, somewhat ironically, given the media over the past week with much comment on my eyesight… I went to the optician first thing for a routine checkup and was told to go immediately to the Moorfields Eye Hospital for an emergency operation. Which I did and just came out of… I must say the entire staff there were extremely kind and professional.
So I missed it.
But the VL WhatsApp reports the following…
After weeks of watching the system fail to generate any sort of effective crisis response operation to integrate vital information and coordinate our response, and after asking in increasingly desperate terms for such to be created having pointed out COBR could not do it (as I’d predicted in 2019 it would not), in desperation on 11 March I told the Cabinet Office that I would chair a meeting in the Cabinet Room (with Lee Cain and Mark Sweeney, a senior official) to do this in preparation for discussion with the PM and other senior figures at 915.
(Below ‘Need’ was a suggested cast list including CCS and NHS.)
The response of the Cabinet Secretary we discovered today was to complain of ‘dictatorship’.
I liked Mark, contra most coverage. And, contra the coverage, I did not brief against him in 2019-20 (and the only spads I caught briefing against him were Javid’s, for which I apologised to him in 2019 and they were removed 2/2020). I think I only raised my voice with him once (about the issue of bombing militias in the evening of 12 March — and NB. I was right about opposing that bombing and they ended up bombing the wrong militias!).
The whole idea, constantly implied in the Inquiry too, that I was briefing against him and others misunderstands a basic point: the briefing against the civil service was entirely hostile to my goals as its only effect was to trolley the PM against action. I wanted serious action, not words. Most of the briefing came from people trying to create pressure so action would not happen. This is a good example of how little people really understand briefings/leaks. The entire conventional wisdom on this subject is wrong.
But Mark’s email shows something really wrong.
There was, as he admitted today, no effective system to integrate the government response, something I’d written about many times before going to No10.
It should not have been up to me, a spad, to create such an ad hoc system on 11 March, ~8 weeks after this crisis began.
And this was in no sense a ‘dictatorship’. It was not intended to be nor was it a decision-making forum. It was to bring together the key people and hash things out properly, and figure out who was doing what, before the PM had to make decisions because no other part of government was doing this or seemed to want to!! (Let that sink in.)
Further, it seems he had not read properly, or perhaps had not absorbed, what I’d actually written, as he says he didn’t want a bunch of spads thinking things through without ‘operational experts’ and ‘scientists’. But the list I suggested and the list that actually attended included inter alia the head of the Civil Contingencies Unit (supposedly ‘operational experts’), the NHS, and scientists.
Again, you should ask yourself, why did Cummings have to organise for the CCS to talk to the NHS in a pandemic, why hadn’t CCS organised this themselves weeks earlier and if they couldn’t why hadn’t the Cabinet Secretary forced them?
When my eyes are better I will reflect further on Mark’s evidence.
I told y’all my eyes were never the same after covid…
[I couldn’t watch Vallance & Whitty live, I’ll read the transcripts, post here when I get round to it, and alert subscribers.
UPDATED 28/11, Gove
The Inquiry has published some texts between me/Gove with me suggesting ‘people should be shot’. I was clearly referring to the Cabinet Office.
UPDATED 29/11, Inquiry NOT going through emails, media hasn’t twigged!
Something the media doesn’t seem to realise about the covid inquiry. The assumption is that, despite the obvious serious problems with the inquiry (e.g Hugo Keith clearly not understanding critical issues and posing for the cameras), we are at least getting for our hundreds of millions a team looking at all the government emails that were kept. WRONG!!
The only emails they look at are ones participants identify and flag!!
Part of the reason they focus on WhatsApps is because they are NOT going through official emails.
Yes, this will seem like another thing on this blog that is ‘too crazy to be true’ but like the other things in this category it is indeed true.
A better way of doing the inquiry would be:
Get the No10 data science team to work with a UK headquartered company to fine tune a LLM with all of the emails, documents, minutes, WhatsApps etc. I.e you tip ALL the available documents into it, which is obviously impossible for any single human (or the Inquiry team) to read.
Make it open soruce.
Let anybody interrogate it.
This would almost certainly be 10X faster (months instead of years), 100X cheaper (low millions instead of 100s of millions), and 1,000X more useful than the actual inquiry we have.
If I was still in No10 I’d have funded such a project 2 years ago — also I would not have done an inquiry dominated by lawyers as it’s clearly incapable of getting to the truth on important issues. (I said in summer 2020 we should do a fast lessons learned immediately, while firing key duffers like Hancock immediately — not wait a decade.) Key lawyers still ask questions showing basic misunderstanding of how No10 works.
An enterprising billionaire could do a version of this themselves simply tipping into the LLM all the documents the Inquiry makes public then making it open source. It wouldn’t have access to all the government emails but it would still be useful.
The media are so bored by how government works they only report idiot stories.
Remember, the official in charge of pandemic response (Wormald) a) told the Cabinet Secretary to crack on with the chickenpox parties line, b) tried to stop the person who told the Cabinet Secretary this was dumb from going to Sage — and when asked why, said he was implementing a recommendation of the public inquiry into Iraq!!
The Inquiry rapidly closed that line of questioning…
NB also that it is looking at endlessly trivial issues but is very clearly NOT looking at whether western funding for Wuhan accidentally created the pandemic.
Email (I just found photo, don’t know if included to Inquiry but don’t think published) from me to Cabinet Secretary, Vallance, Whitty, PPS, seems to be 16/4/20 re vaccines, tests, PPE, DHSC overstretch, how MANAGEMENT must change, a directly responsible ‘Miss X’ to run vaccines etc. Everything the media writes about my views on government are wrong but this email is a snapshot on how I actually thought about government.
30/11: the Jenny Harries trainwreck (yesterday)
I’ve pointed out a few times how (A) those who were most right on covid and saved thousands have almost all left / been pushed out of government while (B) those most wrong were promoted and given honours.
Jenny Harries who gave evidence yesterday is a great example of (B). She gave disastrous advice, should have been removed (in 2020 I had the Cabient Secretary’s agreement to *remove* her) but after my team left No10 she got *a promotion and honours* instead. The people who pointed out her blunders in 2020 have mostly left (without honours).
Here she is pushing the Q12020 public health ‘expert’ line: they must ‘strongly challenge’ early action; bullshit from ‘behavioural science experts’ about ‘fatigue’ and ‘timing’; Britain has had ten years of great preparation so we are an ‘international exemplar’ in preparations (!!) etc.
ALL OF THIS IS BULLSHIT. But given her role you can see how the system was working until we wrenched it to Plan B — emergency short-term measures while we BUILD BUILD BUILD our way out of the emergency. It’s consistent with the Permanent Secretary of the DHSC in charge of pandemic planning telling the Cabinet Secretary ‘exactly right’ on chickenpox parties.
And on care homes:
Generally the Inquiry is bad at exposing that so much of the nonsense in the pandemic came from medical professionals and public health ‘experts’. The official narrative is that the problem was all the political people.
The media doesn’t care though. The Guardian firmly supports the trend of the Inquiry — the Guardian’s job is to defend the permanent administrative state, regardless of how its official line changes from X to not-X. And the Telegraph push the line ‘lockdown was imposed by mad scientists’. None of the MSM have any interest in the truth.
Part of the structural problem with the media coverage is that the MPs and old media hate me more than anybody else so they are systematically screwed — in order to present the truth they’d have to say I was right, this is impossible, so they must distort.
An example: in early January I proposed changing the whole No10 physical layout so we could respond to emergencies properly (not just covid); this was agreed; then Boris pulled the plug. The farce repeated in July. There is no media coverage of this and cannot be coverage of it because it’s more important to the media to attack Vote Leave than to explain the truth on covid.
Hancock proved to have lied over ‘locking down’ care homes
I said to MPs in 2021 that Hancock lied in No10 repeatedly on the question of action in care homes including testing.
On 3 May I texted the No10 whatsapp group that I feared the system was ‘negligently killing’ those we were supposed to be shielding:
Hancock’s spad texted him 13/5:
Matt, we might have some issues with you telling the PM we 'locked down' care homes before the rest of the country.
So direct evidence from Hancock’s own spad of exactly what I said in 2021 which was denied by No10 and Hancock at the time. Like every other thing they denied, I’ve been proved to be telling the truth.
Hancock had no answer to this in the Inquiry, he just tried to distract with quibbles over what ‘lockdown’ meant then he admitted that in no sense could he be described to have ‘locked down’ care homes, as he’d told us in the Cabinet room.
Hancock claims the official Plan A in all the COBRA/DHSC documents — we must NOT suppress because it will lead to a second wave in winter — was only held for 'a few days'!
Plan A was THE plan from Jan until 14-15 March when it was dropped!
Hancock admits he didn't read SAGE minutes in February!!
This explains a lot.
He now admits that he should, per my statement, have actually listened to SAGE as I did - not just read minutes (which he didn’t even do).
Hancock talking rubbish on asymptomatic.
1/ In the Whatsapp group 11/3 Hancock claimed tests don’t work on asymptomatic people. Vallance told him 'wrong' tests DO work. Hancock kept repeating this false idea (badly confusing the PM on the issue & he repeated the misinformation to Cabinet, cf. minutes).
2/ I said 19/3 — we should do a *large scale random national survey* precisely because it was crucial to figure out *the asymptomatic rate*, which would help the whole world not just the UK. Vallance & Whitty agreed with this idea & we did it with ONS.
3/ NERVTAG made clear in JANUARY we should assume there would be asymptomatic transmission. If he'd read the report (his job) he'd have known then.
Hancock, Johnson, & Sedwill statements to inquiry show they STILL do not understand their own misconceptions on this subject in Q1-Q2 2020 (I think here Hancock was genuinely confused / rubbish, not lying).
Hancock has claimed to the Inquiry he privately pushed for lockdown on 13/3 with PM — but admits there's no evidence for it — and again on 14/3 in meetings.
Evidence from ALL others & the paper trail is that he was still pushing Plan A herd immunity 13-15th. His Permanent Secretary was still pushing Plan A on 18/3 to the Cabinet Secretary (email uncovered by media but cf. below in Wormald section).
The reason I stopped him coming to the second, critical unofficial meeting on 14/3, was because he was arguing AGAINST a change of plan & bullshitting everybody about herd immunity & 'best prepared in the world' (see evidence from multiple witnesses).
The Trolley, 6-7/12
Underrated possibility: Sunak’s rewritten a lot of his own mind on 2020, he says things under oath that aren’t true, as well as saying a lot of things that are politically disastrous, and next week is a disaster for him (especially as he’s dreadful at interviews and has become amazingly petulant)). He’s already said things that are easily disprovable: e.g that he ‘tricked’ SAGE into allowing HMT to listen to its discussions (in fact spads and Vallance requested that HMT engage with SAGE). His political instincts are rubbish (we didn’t promote him for his political instincts!). And he can’t cope with the job mentally. As he’s sunk he’s surrounded himself and listened more to exactly the Insider types who least understand politics since 2016 and are programmed to fail. Like many failures Sunak has retreated to a parallel world as the actual world collapses in chaos.
A few things so far:
We now know the person pushing chickenpox parties on the Cabinet Secretary — who then tried to get the PM to tell the country to hold them on 12/3, the day of ‘Dilyn’s War’ — was the official responsible for pandemic planning and response, the Permanent Secretary of DHSC. This extremely important information has been totally ignored by the media. The lead official thought the NHS would inevitably be overwhelmed and it was important NOT to try to suppress the disease as it would lead to a worse second wave in winter. Cf. Wormald’s email to Sedwill on 18/3, also crucial evidence unreported by media.
I, a spad with no formal management responsibility for or power over officials, had to create an ad hoc system to coordinate central government’s response in week of 9/3 because the Cabinet Office hadn’t grasped the scale of the crisis and its own inability to cope with it. There was no mechanism to coordinate the centre’s response so I had to build one! The Cabinet Secretary’s response in an email of 11/3/20 (published as he gave evidence) was to call this desperately needed action an attempt at ‘dictatorship’. This combination of the Cabinet Office a) not grasping the nature of the pandemic, b) not grasping its own uselessness, and c) lashing out at those building what was needed (not just me but many others) is crucial to understanding the chaos and inability to learn.
The attempted narrative inversion from Insiders is that there was ‘a toxic culture’ driven by Boris/me which overwhelmed our Rolls Royce civil service. Apart from the obvious facts that I was responsible for bringing in young women to tell the useless senior men ‘you’re wrong’, which was very unpopular with the PM and senior officials in Cabinet Office, you should note the way the media have performed a bait-and-switch on this. There were accusations at the time about sexism etc made about senior Cabinet Office and other officials — not spads! I had No10 officials complain to me and I reprimanded officials. However their tactics are sensible as the overwhelming hate for me/Vote Leave means that everyone is happy to invert the story. This is doubly useful because it means that the Inquiry is likely to conclude the opposite of the truth and recommend all sorts of HR things that will be a delight to the very worst elements of Whitehall. Not one hack I’ve noticed has pointed out that Helen was describing an institution for which she was the effective COO responsible for it. None of it makes any sense but it doesn’t matter — the key point of the narrative is to bamboozle lawyers and shape Insider debate towards more HR culture.
NB. Wormald, the official pushing chickenpox parties on Sedwill, tried to stop Ben Warner attending SAGE — Ben being the spad who shouted out on 12/3 about the stupidity of pox parties. This intensely ironic situation occurred, said Wormald, because he was trying to implement the lessons of the Iraq public Inquiry!! Obviously the lawyers moved on rapidly and this was unreported.
NB. the media thinks that the Inquiry is examining all the government emails. WRONG! The only emails they look at are ones participants identify and flag! So we will have an Inquiry that costs hundreds of millions, is years out of date, probably makes recommendations that are BAD, and will not even have looked at much of the evidence. And 99% of the media will not have realised this, a decade later.
*The system is working as intended.*
So, The Trolley…
1/ He says he ‘once or twice’ read the SAGE minutes.
2/ Narrative inversion. The SW1 story is that I was briefing against officials all the time. Wrong. The stories attacking officials made my life much worse and undermined my efforts to get things changed. These stories came from a mix of people but included people who wanted to stop change happening and rightly knew that such stories would nudge the trolley away from change.
3/ He says the ‘gender balance’ should have been better. After I left, my two FEMALE deputies were removed because he and Carrie wanted Carrie’s friends running No10.
4/ Narrative inversion. In March-May we did NOT have trouble recruiting. Quite the opposite. All sorts of great people came to help in the crisis. The problem recruiting started June-July because of the chaos and trolleying. Hugo Keith and others want to elide all these distinctions and present everything as ‘toxic culture’, per my point above.
5/ One of the weird things about 2020 is that a) I almost totally stopped talking to the media, b) this caused me huge problems with the media but I thought it worth it, c) Boris never believed this and was being told by Carrie all the time that I was talking to the media. I never could convince him even by simple logic — if I was briefing X, they would not have written a story saying I should be fired!
6/ Boris repeats Hancock’s nonsense on ‘asymptomatic’ transmission and says he believed it at the time. But it was clear *at the time in No10* that Hancock was totally confused and spreading rubbish on this. At the time, Vallance & others pointed out to Hancock what he was saying was false. But he kept repeating it. He even told Vallance/Whitty *they* were wrong and tests did not work on asymptomatic. (See below)
7/ Still massively under-noticed is a critical aspect about the lack of urgency. Hugo Keith just showed another document referring to the Cabinet Office view in early March that there would be a ‘three month’ period between covid arriving in UK and the ‘peak’. This 3 month illusion was crucial to the central problem and the lack of urgency. As I explained in my statement, wrong graphs from the Cabinet Office/DHSC with this 3 month period persisted even after we’d locked down because we’d realised the graphs were wrong! (Ben Warner sometimes leaned over and drew the right curve on the graphs in front of the PM.) It is still not brought out properly by the lawyers or the witnesses (some of who I think have never internalised this). Part of what we realised in the week of 9/3 was the difference between a/ CabOff graphs with 3 months delay and b/ NHS graphs showing peak and possibly NHS broken in mid-April. We realised the Cabinet Office, responsible for coordinating the centre, had not grasped this and was thinking in the week of 9/3 crunch time might still be in JUNE.
8/ Hugo Keith re the shift from Plan A to Plan B: ‘It matters not whether it was an acceleration of the existing plan or a change in strategy or a redirection’.
So the Inquiry chief lawyer says the main question for the Inquiry - why Plan A was wrong, why the delay in realising it and ditching it, the critical difference between Plan A (must avoid second big winter wave via herd immunity over summer) and Plan B (build our way out of it) etc - ‘matters not’. And he doesn't question Boris about the critical issues.
And Keith skips over obvious critical questions about pox parties, Vallance getting bollocked for urging a shift of strategy. Sums up how bad the Inquiry is.
I missed a bit of the afternoon and will read transcript.
So far this is more of the same — the process is simply terrible for getting to the truth.
The Inquiry lawyers seem to think that me pushing to a) fire incompetents and b) rebuild the broken institutions in No10 and the Cabinet Office were a sign of ‘toxic culture’ rather than *someone trying to fix the broken government the rubbishness of which had just killed thousands and would kill thousands more’.
Calling someone a ‘c***’ who needs replacing when they were Hancock or someone pulling people out of crucial meetings on vaccines, testing etc to deal with Cabinet Office cockups from 2019 (!) is NOT a ‘toxic culture’ — the system doing the things I complained about WAS the ‘toxic culture’. It wasn’t my bad language that killed people, it was the things I was complaining about and trying to fix.
It’s weirdly depressing how much the Inquiry itself is mirroring the disasters of 2020:
Lawyers confused by the graphs just like the ministers.
Wasting vast amounts of time on DA issues while fluffing the central questions.
Total confusion about the media and communications, mad assumptions about who was briefing what to the media.
Echoing the worst parts of lefty-HR culture as if this culture is good rather than the root of the debacle of the Cabinet Office in 2020.
Complaining about me calling people useless rather than focusing on the damage done by the useless people and why the system didn’t want to improve.
And so on…
Yesterday Keith literally said:
It matters not whether it was an acceleration of the existing plan or a change in strategy or a redirection.
ABSOLUTE FARCE. The Inquiry is literally saying THE central issue ‘matters not’.
I am resigned to it going on for years, getting the core things wrong and making recommendations that make everything worse and lead to even more HR madness that kills people in the next crisis.
The failure to learn from covid has already contributed strongly to the debacle with Ukraine. This process of repeated failure will continue until someone does what I started doing: rebuilds the system, replaces a large fraction of duffers, brings in new people with new incentives and a culture of high performance instead of slow mediocre failure.
On to today (7/12):
1/ We discussed the effects of Eat Out combined with other things in July. I asked Vallance & Whitty, in front of the PM in the Cabinet Room, what they thought would happen in September and Whitty said — given what’s happened, over 50% likely R>1 after schools go back.
2/ We discussed enforcement chaos re the rules all through the summer. We didn’t grip it properly because this issue became entangled in the general chaos of the botched sacking of Sedwill etc.
3/ Nothing from Hugo Keith about the Red Team I organised for the PM and Chancellor to discuss action AFTER the Sunday 20/9 meeting with Gupta et al.
The Inquiry has totally ignored this, which was the most significant meeting of the second wave. Keith hasn’t asked ANYBODY about it and the approach seems to be to pretend it didn’t happen.
At this meeting, the data was presented as if it was 4-6 weeks later. I explicitly asked the Chancellor and other officials if anybody wanted to challenge the data. NOBODY DID. PM said ‘hit and hope’. At the end of Ocober the data was as the No10 data science team had predicted. If the Inquiry were a truth-seeking exercise it would obviously dig into this and ask for statements from people there. (See my statement for details.)
Critical people who witnessed critical events have NOT been asked even to provide a statement.
Critical people have NOT been called to give evidence. E.g the official in charge of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and the head of PHE, the entity responsible for much of the crisis.
The Inquiry so far has done a bad job of challenging scientists. E.g Prof John Edmunds suggested to the Inquiry that in the week of 9/3, or even earlier, he and others on SAGE wanted to do lockdown and are now amazed about what was going on. a) SAGE did NOT propose lockdown until AFTER No10 realised Plan A had gone terribly wrong. Why didn't the Inquiry ask him about *his own interview* on 13/3 when he argued *against* the 'tech bro'?! NB. Even on 18/3 scientists in SAGE pushed *against* Demis Hassabis. It seems history is being rewritten to suggest public health 'experts' were pushing for lockdown when they were literally on TV arguing *against lockdown* and FOR herd immunity. The Telegraph & other parts of media are aligned with these 'experts' — both sides want to believe the myth of ‘Boris bounced into lockdown’ by public health establishment, for exactly opposite motivations.
Errors in my statement
I’ll keep track of things I put in my statement that I realise are wrong.
I say (page 44): ‘Helen then [night of 13/3] unfortunately was not around from the next day as she / family were isolating.’ In her statement she was around the next day (14/3), she left that day and then was isolating so she saw some of the meetings on 14/3 (but did NOT attend the critical ‘informal’ meeting in the PM’s study that noon).
My text to Hancock was the 25/1. For some reason the Inquiry asked me to change it to 23/1 and I did assuming they were right. I’m not sure where this glitch came from but 25/1 is the right date.
MISCELLANEOUS SNIPPETS: UKR, PODCASTS, SUNAK, OPENAI ETC
I did another podcast. If you haven’t read Antonio’s book Chaos Monkeys you should! It’s a great tale about the startup world of Silicon Valley, going through YC, selling to Facebook, digital advertising etc. If you’ve watched the movie The Player, then think of it like ‘Liar’s Poker crossed with 2000s startup world’! Also there are some scenes with Sam Altman that make it easier to understand how he pulled off the reverse coup last month to retake control of OpenAI.
Re the OpenAI drama: this podcast with Ilya that aired on 2 Nov.
OS is good but may not be when they get much more powerful which they will.
‘Intelligence is power’ (Ilya).
Transformers are enough for AGI.
It’s coming very soon.
When will we see such AI systems as ‘digital life’?
When they’re autonomous.
Very plausible computers smarter than human within 5 years, with deeper insights into crucial subjects — ‘a very powerful data centre that’s somehow alive in a sense’.
We want such data centres to hold ‘warm and positive feelings towards people’.
This is why we have the super-alignment project in OpenAI so we imprint on them the desire to be kind to us, pro-social. Exciting announcements soon…
(I’ve followed this debate for 20 years and said last year it would go mainstream in 2023. Even though there’s a lot of hype it remains very underrated. Politicians do not understand exponentials as we saw in covid. And so far the scaling hypothesis is holding and those at the absolute frontier, in the top 3 companies building the models, expect it to continue to hold for at least another 3-4 massive training runs each of which might lead to large improvements by 2025-6.)
Here is an interesting piece on the details of the west's artillery debacle.
At some point people will ask with incredulity how the west could have thought this was a winning combination:
This thread is a good example of how elite/Insider discussion now works. Sacks is a VC. He (like me) has said from the start the West’s strategy is foolish and will either fail or lead to disastrous escalation. Noah Smith is a pundit-economist. Note how Smith cannot keep the discussion about what’s a sensible strategy and what’s actually happening — he immediately moralises and personalises and turns it into an accusation that Sacks wants Russia to win. For Insiders who support the Current Thing, if you think the west’s strategy is stupid and/or doomed, then you must want Putin to win / be pro-Putin. The idea you can think Putin a shocker and think our strategy a shocker is emotionally impossible for these people. Insiders/elites didn’t used to be like this.
This video shows the (then, 2020) most senior US intelligence official stating that Fauci lied about funding gain-of-function research in Wuhan. It’s also an interesting example of how ‘news’ is so context dependent. In a different context this would have been global news. But Insiders have had enough of covid and biosecurity. Look at this insane story — secret Chinese biolabs illegally working on genetically engineered viruses, the authorities refused to act. INSANE. And no coverage.
UPDATED 22/11, Ukraine
Two very senior Washington foreign policy elites just dropped an article in Foreign Affairs, Redefining Success in Ukraine. It accepts the collapse of the West’s strategy, the war is ‘unwinnable’, and suggests Zelensky start negotiations to give up east UKR or he’ll be abandoned.
UKR counteroffensive has stalled.
The ‘political willingness to continue providing military and economic support to Ukraine has begun to erode in both the United States and Europe’.
‘Such a reassessment reveals an uncomfortable truth: namely, that Ukraine and the West are on an unsustainable trajectory, one characterized by a glaring mismatch between ends and the available means. Kyiv’s war aims — the expulsion of Russian forces from Ukrainian land and the full restoration of its territorial integrity, including Crimea — remain legally and politically unassailable. But strategically they are out of reach’.
‘The United States should begin consultations with Ukraine and its European partners on a strategy centered on Ukraine’s readiness to negotiate a cease-fire with Russia... Kyiv would … acknowledge that its near-term priorities need to shift from attempting to liberate more territory to defending and repairing the more than 80 percent of the country that is still under its control.’
‘We are where we are on the battlefield in Ukraine, and where we are looks at best like a costly deadlock.’
‘U.S. defense industrial base has far too limited production capacity. The United States is stretched thin as it supports two partners engaged in hot wars. Defense analysts are already pronouncing the nation’s defense strategy to be “insolvent”…’
The threat — if UKR doesn’t shift it ‘could, before long, bring about a sharp decline in Western support for Ukraine.’
‘But the reality is that what began as a war of necessity for Ukraine—a fight for its very survival —has morphed into a war of choice, a fight to recapture Crimea and much of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. It is not only an unwinnable war; it is also one that risks losing Western support over time.’
The article seems to me still deluded in important ways but it’s possible that much of the chaff is just ‘strategic eyewash for fools’, not intended to be taken seriously.
It is a clear signal from the DC elite that they realise their strategy has failed and they will now put pressure on Zelensky to negotiate and surrender the east.
Zelensky has been surrounded by a faction of the UKR KGB that has thought they have a chance to smash Russia. It’s unclear whether he is physically able to change strategy without getting whacked by his own security.
But it’s clear the West’s strategy is in tatters, Washington and London have vanished it from the news while they recalibrate, and hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered and tortured unnecessarily. The West should never have started gabbling about UKR joining NATO.
If you’ve read this blog since Feb 2022 you will not be surprised by this turn of events. See below on Prof Freedman and why core errors were made.
UPDATED 19/11, UKRAINE
Stephen Kotkin, biographer of Stalin & one of the top world experts on Russia, said a couple of weeks ago on Stanford podcast about why he now supports negotiations:
We had no public conversation about the definition of victory in Ukraine except for ceding to the Ukrainians their definition which was [summary]… Those were attainable if you took Moscow. If you don’t take Moscow you need another definition of what victory might be.
This is, as subscribers know, exactly what I’ve said for 18 months about the West’s disastrous ‘strategy’ and the huge hole in the argument from the likes of Prof L Freedman.
The failure to define *political ends* is the heart of west's Idiocracy fail on UKR - as it is in most disastrous wars.
Prof Freedman has been wrong not because he misunderstood things like tanks & drones & arrows on maps, but because he had a flawed *political* analysis from the start, itself partly driven by allowing his emotions to cloud his judgement.
This is *not* personal — I like Prof LF, respect his expertise on military matters, & I actually got him into No10 Q3 2020 to give the PM tutorials on nuclear weapons, which he graciously did (sadly the PM thought I was ‘wasting my time’).
But *precisely because he is so respected* it's very important to figure out what & why he has been wrong
Here is one of my previous attempts to go through LF’s arguments and explain why they’re wrong.
These errors led LF to bad predictions — e.g in September 2022 predicting 50-50 that Russia collapsed in ‘weeks’.
It’s time for a reckoning on UKR and when my eye is better I’ll start. In meantime please add in comments quotes from senior people that demonstrate bad understanding of the situation — e.g bad definitions of victory, duff predictions on Putin realising he’s made a mistake and leaving (per Freedman) etc.
It is easy for a statesman ... to use the people’s wind to give a blast on the war trumpet while warming his feet at his fireside or delivering rousing speeches from this platform, and to leave it up to the musketeer bleeding in the snow whether or not his system wins the day and reaps the glory.
There is nothing easier, but woe betide the statesman who in this age fails to seek a reason for war that remains valid after the war is over. Prussian honour does not consist in Prussia playing the Don Quixote all over Germany for the benefit of every disgruntled parliamentary celebrity who feels his local constitution is in jeopardy… (Bismarck, 1850)
Did a podcast with Dwarkesh, enjoy!
8/11, morning (moved from the top)
I notice this:
Everybody around No10/CABOFF knows Sunak’s effectively given up: no plan, no grip, & practically no pretence. He is in the grip of what some of his advisers call ‘a powerful alternative reality headset’.
Herded by legal advice & maybe the most Insider-pundit in SW1 as a right hand man.
Government of the NPCs for the NPCs with the voters abandoned.
Like all PMs he had a choice — exercise the considerable Live Player powers available to a PM or not.
Like all since Cameron (partial exceptions, July-December 2019 & April-May 2020) he chose not to.
He's already mentally in California writing about how he inherited an unplayable hand.
If he showed leadership in the current situation he would go up in voters’ estimation and Labour would have huge problems.
But it seems almost nothing can stop him simply sitting paralysed.
If terrorist attacks hit while he’s still there (I think likely) it will be interesting to see if he sticks with Insider conventional wisdom or attempts a last breakout. Even if he tries I don’t see him executing…
Reminder: Tory MPs mostly have not internalised that their true position is much worse than it seems even from being 20+ behind, because the distribution across seats of what support remains is very very bad.
[Added 10/11. I’m often asked about Sunak’s advisers. There are some very able officials and spads around him, obviously. But there is only so much advisers and officials can do.
A) Sunak is bad at politics. He realised this in 2020 but now he keeps insisting on his own political judgements which are, obviously, dire.
B) Sunak optimises for ‘follow official advice’ which is almost always ‘don’t change much’. This can be good, it’s often bad, and if elevated to a principle it’s disastrous in crises where decisive action is needed.
C) He will not try to control the Cabinet Office where real power is. He has — like Cameron, May, Johnson (with exceptions) and Truss — allowed it to remain a separate and in most ways superior power centre while simultaneously being even more dysfunctional than it was in February 2020. This means he cannot act even when he wants to. ‘The government doesn’t control the government.’
D) His closest friend and adviser is arguably the single most Insider-orientated pundit in SW1. This is a psychological, political and management disaster. It guarantees a systemically flawed outlook and explains what otherwise seems a baffling lack of actual strategy (pundits are necessarily anti-strategy because they are obsessed with today’s ephemera), tone deafness and lack of agency in No10. Many of those who talk to Sunak now describe him as amazingly passive — every suggestion for action is rejected as ‘impossible’ and his story to staff is ‘we’ve done the right thing, made no mistakes, it’s all just bad luck’.]
Remember how a star NPC responded to my long blog in July explaining Sunak’s dire problems: