Let the “bodies pile high”- What Dominic Cummings’ testimony tells us about the Government’s Covid response after the first lockdown was enacted
By Josh Butler
Whilst a large part of Dominic Cumming’s explosive testimony centred around the early stages of the pandemic, as the main purpose of the select committee was essentially focused around what we can learn for future prevention of pandemics, there were other parts of the pandemic response that came under scrutiny.
The person that came in for the most brutal criticism was Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary. Cumming’s claimed that he should have been fired for “15 to 20 things” including “lying” to people “on multiple occasions”.
He allegedly lied about everyone getting the treatment they required, about the supply of PPE, and lied about the government’s test-and-trace planning by misdirecting resources for an arbitrary 100,000 testing target. The most damaging lie was the one he told in March- that all patients returning to care homes had been tested. This turned out to be false, with Covid carriers being allowed into care homes and leading the virus to be spread. From the Nuffield trust’s research, we have found out that there were 35,067 excess deaths in care homes in the first two months of the pandemic, a result of the failure to shield them properly. Dominic Cummings further scolded Hancock for allegedly using the government’s scientific advisers Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Whitty “as shields for himself”, so that if things went wrong (and they did) he could say that all they did was follow the science and pass on any responsibility for what happened.
Boris Johnson, once the man who Cummings was conspiring alongside in the Vote Leave campaign and in government, came in for equally harsh criticism. Cummings alleged that Boris had thin skin, which resulted in the PM waging into unnecessary conflicts with various figures. The public fight throughout the year with Marcus Rashford over free school meals was a prime example of this, which carried on despite people within the government asking him to drop it. Rashford pleaded with the Prime Minister to reverse the decision on ending the provision of meal vouchers to low-income families during the summer holidays, at a time when Covid-19 was causing further financial problems for those who were vulnerable. The qualm with the free school meals can’t have been a monetary one, seeing as the cost of the scheme is fairly small, and the government showed little concern in giving out money to various PPE contractors. Boris Johnson’s fight against Rashford was all for nothing, as eventually the pressure became overwhelming and the government was forced into a humiliating U-turn.
Cummings seemed to think that this time spent fighting over providing school meals could have been used for more important things, such as properly investigating the possible effects of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme before implementing it.
It was due to short term thinking that schemes to boost the economy without consideration to public health were put forward, meaning that Zero Covid was never achieved in the lead up to Winter. As the predicted Winter wave began developing, rather than learning from the mistakes of the early pandemic, Boris seemed hell bent on repeating them. Cummings told the select committee that the PM said he regretted ordering the first lockdown, and would rather see the “bodies pile high” than order a second one. Pile high they did; the Resolution Foundation’s research found that the delay to the winter lockdown caused by Boris’ hesitation led to a further 27,000 deaths.
However, as we now approach the great reopening day on the 21st of June, people are understandably trying to focus on the positives rather than the problems we faced at the height of the pandemic. But what Cumming’s testimony demonstrated is that the people who are in charge of keeping the country safe and making sure we are able to reopen, are incompetent. If we are unable to do so, it will be because of one of the new Covid variants that has spread to the country. Whilst Boris Johnson and other arch-Brexiteers within government came to power promising to control our borders, the reality is that they have allowed 1.59 million to enter the UK by plane during a period when it was supposedly heavily restricted, meaning that any variant could easily be introduced.
But does any of this matter?
A poll from last week saw the Conservative party climb to 44% electoral support, even after a previous ally of the government claimed that they were guilty of, as Marina Hyde describes, “industrial levels of lying, incompetence and contempt for elderly and vulnerable people.” She also correctly wrote that, “we’re awash with pundits and politicians who can tell you the electoral price of everything but the value of nothing.”
The fact that the government is well supported in recent polling doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.
On the 31st of May, officially 152,068 people in the UK have died with Covid-19 recorded as a factor on their death certificate. That matters, even if it doesn’t have electoral consequences.
Even if Cumming’s testimony about the Prime Minister’s chronic indecision over lockdowns, his remorseless attitude to bodies piling up in the streets, or his short sighted thinking that in the long term caused far deeper-than-necessary economic damage, is not taken to heart; it still matters.