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4 November 2023

We still can’t escape Covid

The Covid inquiry is doing roughly the same thing to national morale as the pandemic itself.

By Jonn Elledge

I sometimes think that getting a Twitter feed was the one of the worst things ever to happen to Dominic Cummings. A few years ago, for all his manifest character flaws – a belief that smashing stuff up is the same as reform, a famed inability to play well with others, a quite transparent conviction that everybody else was stupid – he still retained a sort of mystique. He’d write breathless 5,000-word blog posts explaining exactly where the government was going wrong, stuffed with references to history and philosophy amid the bad punctuation. He was quite clearly awful, even by the standards of Westminster, where being awful is no bar to advancement; but he was awful in a way that certain parts of the bubble found compelling.

Now, though, we can see his thoughts, unedited, every day. He describes people he doesn’t like as NPCs (non-playable characters, a gaming term used to communicate that someone is not a free-thinker like them, and also that they never developed empathy). He posts memes of people having chips put into their brains, and justifies the fact he called people c**ts on the grounds that they were, in fact, c**ts. His vibe now is less eccentric loose cannon and genius, than sneering adolescent.

The reason the only man clever enough ever to drive 30 miles in lieu of an eye test is back in the news, of course, is the Covid inquiry, which continues, in a “second time as farce” kind of way, to do roughly the same thing to national morale as the pandemic itself. Cummings is still box office, among those of us suffering from what one might term Westminster brain (the Saw franchise, too, is very popular). And his assertion that Boris Johnson asked his scientific advisers if Covid could be cured by some kind of special nasal hair dryer raised a much-needed chortle.

But little else of what Cummings said can have come as a huge surprise. That the government gave serious consideration to a herd immunity strategy (in other words, letting the virus rip). That commercial worries at newspapers led them to pressure the government to come out against working from home. That Boris Johnson had to be all but physically prevented, while symptomatic, from literally visiting the queen.

Others of the week’s revelations, too, came under a heading one might term “shocking but not surprising”. The news that, back in February 2020, Boris Johnson took a ten-day break to reputedly work on a still unpublished book. The fact no one in his office thought it worth bothering to contact him even as Lombardy went into lockdown. Perhaps this was because his staff had so little faith in his ability to lead, thanks to his tendency to change his mind about strategy based on little more than who he had last spoken to, like a cushion that always bears the imprint of whoever last sat on it.

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In the same way, it’s hard to be surprised by the fact Cummings was prone to describing women using similar language to that he reserved for Matt Hancock. Or that none of the men running the government gave much thought to what lockdown might mean for the victims of domestic abuse. This remains unsurprising even though, in the words of Helen MacNamara, the most senior female official in Downing Street at the time, “It is very difficult to draw any conclusion other than that women have died as a result.”

Most shocking yet unsurprising of all was the revelation, from the diary of the former cabinet secretary Simon Case, that Johnson asked whether it was really worth wrecking the British economy just to save the lives of “people who will die anyway soon”. He might have meant your gran. We may well be shocked that someone could possibly have been so callous. But who could really be surprised?

Where is the current Prime Minister in all this? Rishi Sunak was, after all, in the room when Johnson asked whose life was worth saving. But he has not been engaging much with the inquiry process, choosing instead to bask in the reflected glory of Elon Musk at his summit on AI. The comedy producer Ed Morrish described this as “soft-launch[ing] his fintech podcast”, which is one of those lines so annoyingly good I’m putting it in even though it isn’t my own; but the more likely possibility is surely that he has one eye on the California job market, for when his political career comes to an end before he hits 45. It’s good to know that Twitter is still working for someone in British politics.

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