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Dominic Cummings, the former chief strategist to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, delivered bombshell testimony Wednesday on the British government's early response to the coronavirus, apologizing for falling "disastrously short" in a way that cost thousands of lives.

Why it matters: Cummings, a controversial figure known as the architect behind the Brexit campaign, has become one of Johnson's most troublesome critics since resigning from government after a bitter power struggle last year.

  • Cummings has poor public approval and trust ratings — especially after he was accused of breaking the U.K.'s strict COVID lockdown rules last year — but his role as the most powerful aide in Downing Street gave him unique insight into the government's early pandemic response.
  • The U.K. was one of the worst-hit countries in Europe, both in terms of coronavirus death toll and economic damage, but a world-leading vaccine rollout has brought the country back to the brink of normality.

Highlights:

  • Cummings testified that in February 2020, Johnson viewed COVID-19 as a "scare story" and suggested that he could have England's chief medical officer inject him with the virus on live television to reassure the public.
  • Herd immunity — either in September 2020 after a single peak or January 2021 after a second peak — was viewed by the U.K. government as an "inevitability" up until mid-March, Cummings testified. He claimed that the U.K.'s top civil servant even advocated for "chicken pox parties" to get people infected. Downing Street has denied that purposely aiming for herd immunity, which would have resulted in mass death, was ever government policy.
  • Cummings testified that on March 13, a health department official went to him and said: "I have been told for years there was a plan for this. There is no plan. We are in huge trouble. I think we are absolutely f**ked. I think we are heading for disaster. We are going to kill thousands of people."
  • Cummings said that Health Secretary Matt Hancock "should have been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the Cabinet room and publicly." He said he relayed that opinion to Johnson multiple times.
  • Cummings later claimed that Hancock had "categorically" assured Johnson that people would be tested for COVID-19 before being discharged from hospitals into nursing homes, but that this didn't happen: "Quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with COVID back to care homes with COVID."
  • Despite his outsized role in the Conservative Party's landslide 2019 election victory, Cummings insisted that the choice between Johnson and former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn shows that British politics is broken: "Any system which ends up giving a choice of two people like that to lead is obviously a system that has gone extremely, badly wrong."
  • In the sixth hour of his testimony, Cummings confirmed a bombshell BBC report that Johnson privately said last October — after agreeing to a second lockdown — that he'd rather see "bodies pile high" than take the country into a third lockdown. Johnson told Parliament last month that the report was "total, total rubbish."

The other side: At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, which took place as the testimony was ongoing, Johnson denied that the government was ever complacent on COVID and insisted he took "every step" to "minimize the loss of life," in line with the best scientific advice.

Go deeper

Sep 1, 2021 - Health

Texas school temporarily closes after two teachers die from COVID-19 in a week

American and Texas state flag. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A school in Texas closed for the rest of the week on Tuesday after two teachers died from COVID-19 within a week, the Waco Tribune-Herald reports.

State of play: The campus at Connally Junior High School won't open until after Labor Day for deep sanitation, after sixth-grade social studies teacher Natalia Chansler died on Aug. 28, having notified the school three days earlier that she tested positive for COVID-19.

Sep 2, 2021 - Health

Israeli coronavirus vaccine booster data gives the U.S. hope

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Preliminary Israeli data shows that coronavirus booster shots quickly spike a person's protection against both severe disease and infection, suggesting that the additional shots could help blunt the virus' spread in the U.S. — although it's very unclear how much.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has said that the main rationale for its booster push is to stay ahead of any waning of the vaccines' effectiveness against severe disease. But slowing the spread of the Delta variant would be a welcome bonus.

Ousted Tennessee vaccine chief sues state officials for defamation over firing

Michelle Fiscus. Photo: William DeShazer for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s fired vaccine chief, filed a federal defamation lawsuit on Thursday, alleging state officials skewed facts and misled the public as part of a coordinated campaign to destroy her reputation.

The backdrop: Fiscus was fired in July after facing criticism from Republican lawmakers over messaging to teenagers about the COVID-19 vaccine. A public battle ensued over Fiscus and her job performance.