Who better to judge the true significance of Dominic Cummings’ Big Day Out at parliament than Dominic Cummings himself? Not the grave-faced, shaven-headed man we’ve been watching, ladling out his revenge cold, but an earlier incarnation. Before he became chief adviser to Boris Johnson, before he compromised his own government’s lockdown rules by driving the family to Barnard Castle; before all of that, when he was just a guy holed up in a bunker with his blog, composing screeds about Bismarck, he anticipated the absurdity of today’s carnival: “The political-media system,” he wrote in a 2017 post, “actively suppresses thinking about, y focus en, what’s important.”
Westminster demands a diversion and, over the months leading up to this hearing, Cummings has made himself its distractor-in-chief. Ever happy to fatten the beast he only pretends to despise, he has drip-fed journalists poison about his former confidants. And a grateful press hyped up the coming “Domageddon”, describing him as the “terrifying” kamikaze genius prepared to slay the prime minister or, at the very least, detonate Matt Hancock for “lying”.
“It’s a full-on knife fight,” frothed one insider at the Evening Standard. Another source whispered hoarsely to the Sunday Times: “Dominic has copies of everything and knows where all the bodies are buried.”
Y, mi, aren’t there a lot of bodies. Más que 150,000 Britons have been killed by Covid: the equivalent in deaths of a twin towers terrorist attack happening on these shores every week for a year. Well over a million people report suffering long Covid, con one in six so ill they cannot carry out daily tasks. These are bodies, all right: sick and dead ones. No cache of top-secret documents is necessary to find out about them; they are our relatives, amigos, neighbours. And the cause of their deaths is rather bigger than a punch-up between two middle-aged private school boys. It lies in a grotesque failure of the state.
In a country that as late as 2019 considered itself to be among the best prepared on Earth to handle a pandemic, hundreds of thousands of families are today struggling with premature death or the nursing of a chronically ill loved one, and the loss of vital income. Forget the blame game being played on Downing Street, this is an indictment of an entire governing class: lethal in its complacency, cocksure despite its manifest inadequacy, and forever blocking its eyes and ears to the lessons from history, or even the TV pictures from hospitals across northern Italy.
“When the public needed us most, the government failed," Cummings acknowledged on Wednesday. And tens of thousands died as a result. That’s what counts, not who said what about herd immunity. The machinery of state buckled, the government all but collapsed – not just once, but again and again: from PPE to lockdowns to test and trace to care homes. The result is that Johnson’s UK stands alongside Donald Trump’s US as a cautionary tale of what happens when a ragtag bunch of cash-in merchants, state-haters and incompetent braggarts are allowed to run a country in grave danger. Plenty of examples of that were given to the parliamentary committee: Johnson pretending to be the mayor from Jaws, Cummings dreaming of replacing dull old civil servants with supercomputers, and Hancock blagging his way through.
The thread that pulls all this together is denialism. The denial you saw etched on the face of Hancock last spring is now writ large across what Cummings calls the “political-media system”. Many of the pundits and politicians refuse to take on board how singularly badly the UK has handled the pandemic, even while relatively poor states such as Vietnam have done much better.
Even before the former chief adviser took his seat this morning in the Wilson Room at Portcullis House, he was being written off as yesterday’s man, spilling the beans on an episode that, however bad, will count more in history books than it ever does at the ballot box. Por ahora, what counts for the front pages is jabs and freedom day just around the corner, the binning of social distancing rules, the return of big, fat weddings and heaving nightclubs. With all that waiting for us, the pandemic has been consigned to the rear view, its lasting effects chiefly a matter for careers in SW1.
Except, a misquote an old Athenian, just because you do not take an interest in Covid doesn’t mean Covid won’t take an interest in you. As MPs questioned Cummings, the so-called Indian variant of the coronavirus continued its advance across the country. It is no longer confined to Bolton and Burnley and a few other pockets, but is increasingly widespread across west London. And what the Cummings circus has obscured is how many of the failures that left the UK so fatally exposed remain with us.
Consider: Whitehall freely allowed in planes from India long after it was in Covid meltdown. The £37bn test-and-trace programme keeps breaking down – in April and May, some English councils could not see full data on positive tests within their area. A full 15 months into this pandemic, the UK’s sick pay system – the meanest anywhere in the developed world – has still not been fixed. Even today, the care worker looking after your mum is effectively incentivised not to get tested for Covid for fear of going broke.
Most serious of all, Johnson and his ministers still refuse to level with voters for fear that they won’t love them any more. The result is utter confusion. We’d rather you didn’t fly to Greece this summer, but we won’t stop you – so enjoy that week sunbathing on the island of Petridish! Your area is in lockdown, except we wouldn’t dream of telling you. You can hug, but only if absolutely necessary.
El primer ministro, who claims to be led by “data, not dates”, also promises we are on a “one-way road to freedom". Both things cannot be true, as proved by the minutes of the last Sage meeting held two weeks ago. Discussing the new variant, scientists agreed that it was a “realistic possibility” that it is “as much as 50% more transmissible” than the previous Kent strain. En ese caso, the minutes record, for Johnson to press on with his road map “would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalisations”. The potential is lethal, as observed by Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London: “Thousands may well die just because huge numbers will get infected, even if the risk of death for each person is low.”
Against that risk, the sensible thing to do would be to park “freedom day” and to make sure the UK is as well-protected as possible against this variant and all the others we are likely to face over the coming months. Money for smaller class sizes with better ventilation in schools; accommodation for low-income and badly housed families that need isolation; ditching the hyperbole about ancient British liberties such as downing a pint of Stella.
Doing those things would really be learning the lessons from Covid. But then who dies of this disease? Frontline workers, black and brown people, those with disabilities and people squashed into tiny housing. Never the sort who gets to address a select committee or text a friendly journalist.