The Observer view on deadly government incompetence

That Boris Johnson lacks the leadership skills, capability and integrity to guide the country through a national emergency is not a new insight: it has been clear for months. But the significance of Dominic Cummings’ testimony to the House of Commons last week was that the prime minister’s former adviser provided more evidence of Johnson’s culpability for decisions that cost countless lives.

Cummings himself is a man lacking in integrity, who will for ever be associated with the electoral deceit and the implicit racism of the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. Although he expressed what appeared to be genuine contrition for his role in the policy disasters that caused people to die, he is unlikely to be a wholly reliable narrator. But that does not mean his account of what happened during his time advising Johnson can be dismissed out of hand. Much of what he said last week accords with what we already know in relation to Johnson’s failures and rings true about his well-established character flaws.

Cummings’ allegations about the conduct of Johnson and the health secretary, Matt Hancock – that the former ignored scientific advice in a way that cost lives and that the latter repeatedly lied – are extremely serious and underscore the urgent need for a public inquiry to establish the role the prime minister and other ministers, including those such as the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who reportedly opposed the introduction of tougher social restrictions last autumn, played in causing avoidable loss of life over the last 14 maande. This is not just about holding individuals accountable for negligence in office, but about learning how to avoid such serious mistakes being repeated in future national emergencies. As the vaccine rollout proceeds apace, and the mood of the nation remains one of positive relief, Cummings’ select committee appearance was an important reminder that we brush aside the disasters of the last year at our peril.

Cummings’ account was further evidence that the state was woefully underprepared for a pandemic. He painted a picture of a governing establishment in utter chaos as civil servants and ministers realised that the appropriate level of contingency planning did not exist. The responsibility for this lies with ministers and officials. How could senior ministers and officials not regularly review plans for a crisis that featured so prominently on the National Risk Register? How could the disastrous pandemic simulation exercise van 2016, which flagged concerns of a lack of cross-government coordination and the risks for care homes, not prompt an urgent review of the UK’s preparedness for a pandemic?

This government has unquestionably faced the most difficult set of circumstances since the Second World War. Governments around the world have struggled to manage the impact of the pandemic on their citizens. But the lack of planning for an event, the risk of which was widely anticipated, affected the quality of the government’s response. There are also questions to be asked about the quality and robustness of the scientific and public health advice ministers were receiving in the early days of the pandemic. Why did it take so long for it to dawn that not putting in place tighter social restrictions in the spring would lead to the collapse of NHS healthcare as we know it and tens of thousands of people dying in terrible circumstances, given what was happening in China and Italy, and the warnings from experts outside government before mid-March? Why were government experts defending decisions to drop testing, rather than urging ministers to increase capacity as quickly as possible in order to aid a test-and-trace strategy? Why did they tell the public that masks could put them at increased risk of infection in the absence of any evidence? The institutional failings provide a rude awakening as to the capacity of the state to respond to a broad range of national emergencies.

But these serious institutional failings cannot be used as a cover for the gross political failings of Johnson and his ministers. Johnson is culpable for deaths that did not need to happen. The only conclusion to be drawn from the first wave of the pandemic was that the government took too long to introduce social restrictions and eased them too quickly in early summer. Neil Ferguson, one of the country’s most eminent epidemiologists, said last summer that locking down a week earlier – at which point many advisers inside and outside government were urging the prime minister to do so – would have halved the death toll in the first wave. Yet Cummings said that Johnson regretted imposing a lockdown during the first wave and was determined not to do it again: “I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open.” This allegation fits with what we know about the prime minister’s behaviour during the critical period last autumn, when scientists and others were again urging him to lock down to contain the spread of the virus, but he refused to act. Sunak also reportedly opposed the imposition of tougher social restrictions. There was no case for delaying the imposition of social restrictions. Those who argue that there is a tradeoff between such restrictions and broader costs to the economy and wellbeing display a dangerous lack of understanding about a virus that spreads exponentially; if the government is not willing to tolerate the collapse of the NHS and hundreds of thousands of deaths, the tradeoff is always between social restrictions now and longer and tougher social restrictions, with more deaths than necessary, later. That tradeoff was obvious last spring. Yet the prime minister chose to ignore the scientific consensus, relying on the advice of discredited outlier scientists who supported his views. He delayed introducing a circuit-breaker lockdown until November and decided to ease restrictions in early December, when infection rates were high and climbing. While the second wave was caused by a more infectious variant, its severity can be directly traced to Johnson’s unwillingness to take difficult political decisions. Nothing illustrates his gross unfitness for office more clearly.

That may prove to be the most serious political failing during this pandemic, but there have been countless others. Instead of quickly developing a plan to try to protect care homes, Hancock issued false assurances that he had put a shield around them and that people being discharged from hospitals into care homes were being tested for Covid, even as care home managers and relatives were saying they were not; similar mistakes were made in Scotland and Wales. There were extraordinary failures in the procurement of PPE that resulted in the government spending huge sums on equipment not fit for purpose, as NHS and care home staff coped with serious shortages. Children and young people have been failed at every turn: education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has done far too little to support them in accessing education while schools were closed and to help them catch up on missed opportunities. He remains in post despite his huge errors in the exam results scandal, with similar issues also anticipated by experts this year due to government decisions.

The government also continues to make serious and repeated errors. Cummings drew attention to the failure of borders policy last year. In April, Johnson delayed putting India on the red list for three weeks because he reportedly did not want to cancel his trade trip; this helped seed the B.1.617.2 variant in the UK, which will probably require a delay to relaxing social restrictions. The failure to introduce tougher restrictions on international travel risks a third wave caused by vaccine-resistant variants from abroad. This could undermine what has been achieved by the highly successful vaccine rollout, for which the government deserves credit.

Despite that rollout, the pandemic remains a threat to health, wellbeing and the economy. Emerging data on the higher transmissibility of the B.1.617.2 variant dominant in the UK suggests that the government should delay the final relaxation of restrictions planned for 21 June for a few weeks, at least until the school summer holidays, when transmission risks will be lower. The government must also introduce more restrictions on international travel over the summer in line with the scientific advice en, assuming things are going well in the autumn, bring forwards the public inquiry as a matter of urgency.

But we do not need a public inquiry to tell us what is clear: Johnson is utterly unfit to be prime minister. He is responsible for tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. Those who supported Johnson’s bid for the Conservative leadership – not just Cummings, but those MPs who backed him despite knowing that he lacks the leadership and integrity prerequisite for public office – are complicit. The pandemic has proved a tragic point: that the costs inflicted by incompetent leaders who treat politics more like a game than a matter of life and death can be very painful indeed.

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