The former chief strategist for Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in a stroppy mood before the UK parliamentary Health and Science committee. For seven hours, Cummings unleashed salvo after salvo against his former boss and the government coronavirus response.
Boiling down some points of the Cummings show: there was a failure on the part of the Johnson government to respond to the pandemic. Johnson was unfit for office. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock should have been sacked for any number of decisions. Lockdown measures were imposed too late to prevent the surge of infections. There was simply no overall master plan to cope with a pandemic.
The political strategist apologised for the various tiers of decision makers and advisers, including himself, for falling calamitously “short of the standards that the public has a right to expect”. He apologised to those families who “unnecessarily” lost loved ones and confessed that “lots of key people were literally skiing” instead of moving to a “war footing” in January and February last year.
The portrait of Johnson is superbly unsympathetic. The prime minister’s clownish credentials come blundering through. The novel coronavirus was dismissed as “the new swine flu”, a mere “scare story”. He even suggested receiving an injection of the virus live on television “so everyone realises it’s nothing to be frightened of”. Bodies piled up high was a preferable outcome to imposing a third lockdown in the autumn of 2020. And as for information, the PM could not take himself away from the Daily Telegraph’s view of events.
The Cummings-Johnson relationship duly atrophied. “The heart of the problem was, fundamentally, I regarded him as unfit for the job. And I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought would have been bad decisions, and push things through against his wishes.”
Some of the choicest blows are reserved for the Health Secretary, who “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things”. Hancock held back the testing regime and interfered in the development of a mass testing system, conduct Cummings found “criminal” and “disgraceful”. Hancock was mendacious in meetings held in the cabinet room of Downing Street, assuring those in attendance that people “were going to be tested [for COVID-19] before they went back to care homes [from hospitals].” He also used health experts such as the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical adviser Chris Witty as shields for government incompetence.
Cummings delighted the political science fraternity with his display in the Attlee suite in Portcullis House. He was, Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield asserted, “at his most magnificent and Machiavellian: a quite beautiful case study in the art of planting seeds and laying traps.” The Spectator, a magazine once edited by Johnson, was blind to the retributive nature of the testimony. “His decision to identify the many mistakes made at the start of the pandemic is not about seeking vengeance; it is a vital process to ensure that errors are identified and not repeated.” How noble.
To a degree, the Cummings account is useful in pointing out administrative failings. The pandemic blueprint was inadequate, developed to fight influenza rather than respiratory variants in the form of coronavirus. Dissenting views were not countenanced. “It was a classic historical example of groupthink in action,” assessed Cummings. “The more people from outside attacked, the more internally said, ‘They don’t understand, they haven’t got access to our information.’”
The response from Johnson to such accounts and depictions is crudely simple: remind voters that Britain’s vaccination effort has been stellar. The UK is one of the leading countries in the mass vaccination programme. Specifically regarding Cummings’s testimony, the “commentary”, claimed Johnson, did not “bear relation to reality”.
Hancock’s approach was much the same: stay focused on the vaccination drive. Forget past crimes and misdemeanours. He also denied that he lied about patients being sent from hospital to care homes without being tested first. “My recollection of events is that I committed to delivering that testing for people going from hospital into care homes when we could do it.” The relevant factor was the timing of it; the capacity for testing had to be built up.
And there is the obvious point that Cummings, despite blaming Johnson and seeking his own restoration, remains chipped and damaged. The display by the senior strategist in the rose garden of No 10 last year featuring an apologia for his infamous trip to County Durham in breach of lockdown laws was a hard one to efface. He did concede that doing so had “undermined public confidence”. But he was ready with an explanation. Moving his family out of London took place after his wife received death threats from people gathered outside the home. “The whole thing was a complete disaster and the truth is… if I just basically sent my family back out of London and said here’s the truth to the public, I think people would have understood the situation.”
When asked whether the additional trip by Cummings to Barnard Castle from the family home in County Durham was actually for reasons of testing his eyesight, the dark eminence returned to form. “If you’re going to drive 300 miles to go back to work, popping down the road for 30 miles and back to see how you feel… it didn’t seem crazy.” It was not, as committee chair Jeremy Hunt suggested, a birthday celebration for his wife. “If I was going to make up a story I would come up with a better one than that.”
Patrick Diamond of Queen Mary, University of London identifies the central paradox of British government that proved so detrimental to the pandemic response. The British state might be highly centralised but “the centre of government lacks capacity.” Policymaking by the core executive has also been undermined by the altering of relations between the ministerial group and the civil service. Then comes the “growth of territorial conflict with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” The result of this: a failure of coordination of governments across the UK in responding to COVID-19. What Cummings did was render such dysfunctions flesh and folly.