Robert Peston Robert Peston

Cummings ready to testify that Boris rejected his lockdown advice

But the PM and Rishi Sunak argued that 'we can't justify it now' - so it didn't happen

As many hospitals struggle to cope with a surge of Covid-19 patients, the most important judgement yet to be made about 2020 is how much difference it would have made had England been pre-emptively locked down in September.

This is not an academic question. Because there were two separate occasions in September when the prime minister’s political and scientific advisers urged him to impose tough national restrictions and suppress the incidence of the virus back to low levels.

It is well known that on 21 September the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended a short ‘circuit-breaking’ lockdown.

But I have learned that within Downing Street, it was at the beginning of September that Boris Johnson was urged by officials and colleagues – led by his former adviser Dominic Cummings – to impose tough new controls on our behaviour.

I am told that Cummings, his ally Ben Warner and leading members of SAGE were in favour of ‘whacking it [the virus] early]’. According to a source they argued ‘you should do it now because it will save lives and minimise disruption’. But the prime minister and the Chancellor Rishi Sunak argued that ‘we can’t justify it now’, so it didn’t happen.

In early September, at a meeting in the Cabinet Room, Cummings and Warner presented data about how the virus would spread by the end of October without such suppressive measures. They believe they were proved right: ‘at the end of October, a meeting then replayed exactly what the data team had projected’, the source says.

It was at the end of October that the circuit breaking lockdown was finally ordered by the prime minister. But by then the virus was already so prevalent in so many parts of the country that the lockdown was the precursor to the widespread imposition of the ‘stay-at-home’ tier 4 in most of England.

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