I was planning to write about Covid, Government corruption and the Greensill scandal; but after my exams were finished and my dissertation was submitted I couldn’t help but be glued to my laptop listening to Dominic Cummings’ testimony to a select committee. It only feels right to cover what was alleged and what it reveals about the government and our country.
In this short piece, I cannot cover the full breadth of the allegations that emerged from Dominic Cummings’ many hours of testimony, so I would encourage you to read about the allegations in full somewhere else. Some would argue that we haven’t learnt anything; these are allegations from a man who has seemingly shown little regard for the importance of the truth in the past, so how can we trust him now? It was a stark image to see Dominic Cummings, isolated from the figures of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson that he had risen the ranks with, pleading with MPs to believe him and take his accusations as truthful and made with integrity. However, whilst Cummings may be an unreliable narrator about the virtues of the Prime Minister and his Covid response, his testimony still made box office viewing and confirmed the greatest fears of those who are sceptical of the current government. He laid out the ways in which they were ill-prepared to deal with the pandemic, how they dithered in their response, and how they arrived at the conclusion that the response should be to aim for herd-immunity.
Cummings alleged that Boris planned to ask the nation to hold Covid parties, in the style of Chicken Pox parties from the past, so as to speed up the process of generating immunity. Furthermore, to demonstrate that Covid was nothing to be afraid of, the Prime Minister planned to be injected with Covid by Chris Witty on live television in an attempt to create a strong-man political personality similar to Trump, Putin or Erdogan. Whilst the injection during a prime-time BBC slot was scrapped by those who knew better, one doesn’t have to be a devotee of Dominic Cummings to believe the idea that Boris Johnson wanted to demonstrate his ability to conquer what he saw as a petty virus.
In his now famous speech at Greenwich’s Royal Naval College, flanked by the backdrop of the grand painting The Triumph of Liberty and Peace over Tyranny, which depicts the so-called “Glorious Revolution”; Johnson claimed that Britain was “on the slipway” of global economic dominance, and that we should hold a sense of “supreme national self-confidence”. Acknowledging that Covid was a threat to the nation and its future prosperity was out of the question in his eyes. On the 3rd of March in a press conference he claimed that when he was at a hospital with “a few coronavirus patients” he “shook hands with everybody” to show that he wouldn’t be cowed to the pressure of the virus. Yet, little over a month later, the country had been forced into national lockdown and the Prime Minister himself was in intensive care recovering from the virus.
On the 13th of March, the government as a collective had come to the conclusion that the plan for herd immunity would decimate NHS capacity. Cummings and key figures in the government were joined by the Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara, who admitted to them that “I think we are absolutely f*cked. This country is heading for disaster. We’re going to kill thousands of people.” But rather than turning their whole attention towards Covid, Cummings alleged that one section of government was dealing with a request from President Trump to participate in a co-operative set of airstrikes in Iraq on the 12th of March, and the press office was called to assist Carrie Symonds, the Prime Minister’s newlywed Wife, who was unhappy about press coverage of her relationship with Boris and their dog. Cummings revealed that those who were available quickly planned on a whiteboard the Government’s Plan B Covid response, that tried to more aggressively prevent the virus spreading through lockdowns and a track and trace system. On the board you can see the confusion and the difficult decisions they needed to make. Nevertheless, they were not operating in an environment primed for a measured and effective pandemic response; it was an environment of chaos.
However, in many ways it appears to be a chaos that the Prime Minister relished in. According to another section of Cummings’ testimony, Boris enjoyed the peril of the pandemic because, “Chaos means everybody has to look to me to see who is in charge“. The daily press conferences at the height of the first wave gave him a stage to perform on, and in his serious address about lockdown from No.10 he was able to play the role of the “War Prime Minister” like his idol Churchill; however he is nothing but a pale imitation of an organised, brave leader or a Shakespearean hero. Dominic Cummings admitted that “It’s completely crackers that someone like me should have been in there, just the same as it’s crackers that Boris Johnson was in there.”Whilst it may give the PM an ego boost, chaos kills. Professor Neil Ferguson, reflecting on the pandemic so far, estimated that the number of deaths in the first wave of the virus could have been cut by at least a half if the government had locked down just a week earlier. Whilst Cummings’ testimony about the early stages of the Government’s pandemic response was alarming, they are more defensible. The Government continues to claim that they tried their best, followed the scientific advice they were given; and the public seems to share this sentiment, more focused on the success of the vaccination programme. Efforts to reflect on the past are scolded and seen as trying to score political points with hindsight. However, the details that Cummings relayed about what happened after the peak of the first wave, and in the leadup to the second lockdown are in many ways more damning.