Wednesday, 26 May 2021

The Doings of Cummings

Complacency. This has characterised the government's response to the pandemic all along (and, indeed, still does). Not my take this time, but the opinion of Dominic Cummings, the former chief advisor turned unlikely ally in the efforts to make the Tories accountable for the 128,000 deaths that have happened on their watch.

In his seven-hour testimony before the select committee, we learned the government were unconcerned about the reports coming out of China and the precautionary lockdown Taiwan instituted on New Year's Eve, an opinion shared with international organisations like the WHO too. But, of course, matters got especially worse in the UK versus comparator countries and these matters, and the tragic loss of life they entailed, are outcomes of reluctant, half-arsed, and delayed decision making. Boris Johnson himself treated the outbreak as an inconvenience rather than a mounting national emergency demanding immediate action. Cummings said that Johnson saw Covid as a scare story no more serious than Swine Flu. And to prove it, Johnson was happy to get Chris Whitty to inject him with the virus live on TV. Then there was the institutional inertia of government. Urgency was absent as "lots of key people were literally skiing". Cummings acknowledged his own failures too, saying he did not push hard enough on the seriousness of the situation and had recommended that Johnson not bother with the COBRA meetings - adding his flippant attitude would not have assisted proceedings anyway.

When government did get round to its response to Covid, Cummings argued the herd immmunity strategy without a vaccine was very much on the table. Indeed, the only option. He said the Dept of Health had drawn up two scenarios, and what needed managing was when the surge in infections would fall - either immediately, or later in the year. Readers without medium-term memory impediments will recall the Tories' dithering ensured the worst possible worlds: a peak in both parts of the year. The original thinking wanted to let the infection work through the population so enough would become infected, develop antibodies, and therefore stop Covid from transmitting to others. Or to put it alternatively, a plan for a massive death rate and skyrocketing serious illness. Again, some might remember Cummings himself got into hot water for allegedly expressing this opinion behind the scenes. Cummings also added that the then prevailing view in government was that instituting a lockdown was considered more dangerous than letting Coronavirus rip, with the government flying kites and tentatively testing the water instead of taking an early decision. However, this indecision was backed by professional opinion: lockdowns would only delay the problem, not avoid it. Exculpatory evidence? Hardly when you consider how the experience in the East was already in the can and had effectively managed infections.

Matters certainly weren't helped by distractions. The first, on 12th March according to Cummings, was a plan by Trump to bomb targets in Syria. The other was "the prime minister's girlfriend was going completely crackers about something trivial". In this case, press coverage of the Downing Street dog. And once the government started taking things seriously, instead of learning from East Asia everything was done on the hoof. For example, shielding was an afterthought and the (weak) policy was cobbled together over "two all-nighters". Matt Hancock also found himself on the sharp end, with Cummings saying the Dept of Health was turning down ventilators while PPE procurement was not immediately seen as a priority. Warming to his theme he called Hancock out as a liar for claiming everyone got the treatment they needed during the first peak, and tried blaming PPE shortages on NHS England and Rishi Sunak. For this he shoud have been sacked about 15-20 times.

There were bits and pieces for lovers of tittle-tattle. Asked about his relationship to the media, Cummings said he'd stopped talking to journalists in January 2020, except for the ever-loyal Laura Kuenssberg, to whom he gave "guidance" on "specific stories". Less amusing but altogether more damning was the admission testing was pared down between March and May because the government believed the effort was pointless if 70% of the population were going to contract the disease. And while this was deliberately and consciously wound down, Johnson promised a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. As was widely suspected at the time, it turns out Hancock tried hoarding testing kits so the arbitrary target could be met on time. It was also Hancock who promised people moving out of hospital and into care homes would be tested, but weren't. And we all know what horrifying scenes visited the most vulnerable in these places.

As the crisis wore on, Boris Johnson continued to be a major block on things. He would avoid decisive action because of the knock the economy would take. Presumably the same thinking is behind his continued refusal to manage the borders properly, and Cummings speaks of his frustration of himself, Sunak, and the cabinet secretary coming to a conclusion but Johnson going off on and changing his mind. What mattered to him was media management and what the editorial offices were saying. For example, Cummings claimed he and others were urging the PM not to encourage people to return to work in late summer and early autumn, but his ears were bent by those who argued a degree of herd immunity had been achieved. A seed cast onto fertile ground, given Johnson's preoccupation with matters economic. And speaking of September, he claimed both he, Hancock, and others were arguing for a further lockdown to head off rising transmission - but Johnson completely failed to heed their advice. Indeed, Johnson continued to be "cross" with Cummings because even by this stage he felt the first lockdown was a mistake he'd been bounced into. Unsurprisingly, asked if he though Johnson was "a fit and proper person to get us through this pandemic", his answer was simply no.

Who can disagree? The failings have been glaringly obvious, the lockdowns haphazard and inconsistent and, if we are to accept Cummings's testimony as good coin, the fact the interests of key Tory constituents were protected despite the chaos and dysfunction was just a fortuitous happenstance. As ever, just as interesting as the utterances were the silences. He registered his opposition to Help Out to Eat Out, the one scheme that helped keep Covid transmitting throughout August, but Dishy Rishi didn't cop for any criticisms. Contrary to reports from around the cabinet table, he didn't oppose or drag his feet over locking down (news, it has to be said, to the chancellor himself). Another curious omission was a certain Michael Gove, these days de facto Prime Minister as Johnson busies himself writing Shakespeare's biography. As theoretically the most powerful man in government after Johnson, his role in proceedings is almost entirely opaque. Cummings might be immune to the normal pressures Tory solidarity exerts, but he knows who his allies are and who might listen to him in the future.

As Cummings notes, the disaster of the UK response to Covid was a systemic failure. Relationships within government were messy, the state labyrinthine, planning was non-existent and everything was done on the hoof. Matters weren't helped by disastrous decision making and a leader likened to a shopping trolley because of his tendency to veer out of control. The one success as far as he was concerned was the vaccine programme, precisely thanks to a clear chain of accountability and decision-making.

What strikes me about Cummings's appearance was how far removed he was from the crafted media image. Instead, we saw a frustrated, exasperated technocrat despairing at the way politics gets in the way of things. If has a counterpart in the Labour Party, his nearest kin is Tony Blair's most obsequious stan, Andrew Adonis. But there are special circumstances here. The Tories have expertly handled the politics of the Covid crisis, not least because their friends in print and broadcast media were there to lean on, but on actual competence this government is terrible on every measure. If there is "talent" in the Tory party, it's very well hidden in the junior ministerial and bag carrier grades. But ultimately, will today's revelations make any difference to Tory fortunes? And the answer is ... no. Covid might yet bite the government if the UK is forced into yet another lockdown because of their negligence, but raking over the record now, while important, is not going to produce a vengeful public who've just woken up to how the Tories have failed them. That moment was a year ago when the crisis was at its height, when alternative leaders are supposed to rise to the occasion. But that didn't happen. There was another failing politician Cummings didn't name, someone who simply sat in the Commons and nodded everything through and didn't ask the tough questions for the sake of being "constructive". When pressure and different policy proposals could have sharpened up the government's act, as per the dying days of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, Keir Starmer was nowhere. Indeed, so inconsequential to the last year he has been that I doubt the thought ever crossed Cummings's mind to mention him.

1 comment:

BCFG said...

Obviously I agree that the Tories handling of this is criminal.

The Tories thought nothing of murdering 120,000 brits in relation to Austerity. What’s another 130, 0000 to history’s greatest terrorists?

You have to take your hat off to the brits for continually voting in their biggest terrorist threat. Maybe if we shipped in the head of ISIS to take over the Labour party that might increase their chances a bit?

On the subject of Labour, they have been pitiful at holding the government to account. From Starmer's continued request for an exit strategy even as deaths were hitting their peak (did this force the Tories to end lockdown too soon and open up too late?) to Andy Burnham’s grotesque objection to lockdowns, or his objection to the perfectly sensible idea of lockdowns in covid hotspots.

Covid has highlighted that Britain is utterly rotten to the core, from let the bodies pile high Johnson (the prime minister would you believe), to grubby opportunistic populists like Burnham (a mayor would you believe), right through to insignificants like Lord Boffy (he claims he is a Marxist would you believe), with his Nigel Farage impersonations, its only seasonal flu schtick.