A former senior aide to the British Prime Minister has said tens of thousands of people died unnecessarily because of the UK government's failings over coronavirus.
Boris Johnson is "unfit for the job" of Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings told MPs.
The prime minister's former adviser said Mr Johnson dismissed the pandemic as a "scare story" or the new "swine flu" in early 2020 as the global crisis loomed and then had to be persuaded to lock down in March.
Mr Johnson then ignored scientific advice when faced with calls for a circuit breaker in September, before saying he would rather see "bodies pile high" than announce a third lockdown, Mr Cummings said.
Mr Cummings apologised to the public, saying that ministers, officials and advisers had fallen "disastrously short" of the standards they should expect in a crisis.
He said the prime minister was more concerned about the impact on the economy than the need to curb the spread of coronavirus in the weeks leading up to the first lockdown.
Mr Cummings was scathing about the response of the Department of Health and Social Care, claiming Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been fired.
The former adviser, who left Downing Street last year after a behind-the-scenes power struggle, told the MPs: "The truth is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this.
"When the public needed us most, the government failed.
"I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that."
In a series of explosive claims, Mr Cummings said:
- The government was not operating on a "war footing" in February 2020 as the global crisis mounted, with the prime minister on holiday and "lots of key people were literally skiing".
- It was suggested Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty should inject Mr Johnson with the virus on live TV to show it was nothing to be scared of.
- Herd immunity from people catching the disease was thought to be inevitable because there was no plan to try to suppress the spread of the virus.
- Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill told the prime minister to go on TV and explain the herd immunity plan by saying "it's like the old chicken pox parties, we need people to get this disease because that's how we get herd immunity by September".
- The prime minister rejected scientific advice for a lockdown in September, instead opting to "hit and hope".
Mr Cummings said that by the end of October 2020 his relationship with Mr Johnson had deteriorated to the extent that "fundamentally I regarded him as unfit for the job".
"I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought were extremely bad decisions."
The former aide said he was trying to push other things through against Mr Johnson's wishes.
Mr Cummings described his mounting panic about the situation in March 2020, with no plan in place for a lockdown or measures to protect the most vulnerable.
He said the country should have locked down in the first week of March 2020 at the latest but the "official logic" even on 17 March was that this would only cause a peak of the virus later on, potentially in the winter when the NHS would already be under pressure.
He said he was concerned about the "groupthink" of government scientists and officials, which led to the strategy to control but not halt the spread of the virus.
Mr Cummings said that on the evening of 13 March it was realised that a meeting would need to be held with Mr Johnson to explain "we're going to have to ditch the whole official plan, we're heading for the biggest disaster this country has seen since 1914".
He praised deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara, who also voiced concerns about the lack of a plan, claiming she told him "I think we are absolutely f*****, I think this country is headed for disaster, I think we're going to kill thousands of people".
He said that on 14 March, Mr Johnson was told: "You are going to have to lock down."
Mr Johnson has been criticised for missing five Cobra meetings in the early stages of the pandemic, but Mr Cummings suggested that may have been part of a plan because he did not take the looming crisis seriously.
"The view of various officials inside No 10 was - if we have the prime minister chairing Cobra meetings and he just tells everyone 'it's swine flu, don't worry about it, I'm going to get Chris Whitty to inject me live on TV with coronavirus so everyone realises it's nothing to be frightened of' - that would not help actually serious planning," he said.
The first lockdown was finally implemented on 23 March, but Mr Cummings said the prime minister later regretted the move.
Similar mistakes were made in September as Mr Johnson was urged by government scientists to impose a second lockdown but he resisted because of economic concerns.
"If you took anybody at random from the top 1% competent people in this country and presented them with the situation, they would have behaved differently to how the prime minister behaved," Mr Cummings said.
Asked if he had heard Mr Johnson said he would rather see "bodies pile high" than impose another lockdown on the nation, Mr Cummings said: "I heard that in the prime minister's study. That was not in September though, that was immediately after he finally made the decision to do the lockdown on October 31."
Mr Cummings said the planned public inquiry, due to start in spring 2022, was too late.
"Tens of thousands of people died who didn't need to die," he said.
"There is absolutely no excuse for delaying that because a lot of the reasons for why that happened are still in place now."
While Mr Cummings was giving evidence, Mr Johnson was facing MPs at Prime Minister's Questions.
Mr Johnson said: "To go into a lockdown is a traumatic thing for a country, to deal with a pandemic on this scale has been appallingly difficult, and we have at every stage tried to minimise loss of life, to save lives, to protect the NHS and we have followed the best scientific advice that we can."
In response to Mr Cummings' "swine flu" claim, the prime minister said: "I don't think anybody could credibly accuse this government of being complacent about the threat that this virus posed at any point."
Under questioning from Labour leader Keir Starmer, the prime minister did not deny a suggestion that he said words to the effect of "Covid was only killing 80-year-olds" as he resisted a second lockdown.
Mr Johnson said that would be a matter for the public inquiry to look into but "I am absolutely confident that we took the decisions in the best interests of the British people".