The United Kingdom is at one of the most precarious moments in its postwar history. After a perilously late lockdown it has recorded 265,227 Covid-19 cases and 37,048 deaths (the second highest official total in the world). The economy, meanwhile, is set to endure the worst recession since 1709, with unemployment predicted to exceed three million.
Yet in recent times the Prime Minister has not been absorbed with these matters, but with his senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ flagrant breaches of the lockdown. For more than a month, Boris Johnson and his cabinet solemnly intoned the order to “stay home”. It was a demand that the public accepted in good faith as they missed funerals, family births and weddings, and sacrificed incomes. The discovery that Mr Cummings, one of those tasked with devising the lockdown rules, interpreted them to his own benefit has turned tragedy into farce.
When Mr Cummings belatedly issued a defence – at a surreal one-hour press conference in the Downing Street garden, as if he were an elected minister of state – it was inadequate. His reputed decision to test his eyesight by driving 30 miles to Barnard Castle in County Durham with his wife and four-year-old son reflects either a lack of candour or a lack of judgement. And despite confirming that he breached the lockdown rules – by the government’s own definition – he expressed little contrition for his actions. Instead, he boasted of his prescience, recalling that “only last year I wrote explicitly about the danger of coronaviruses”. The following day No 10 was forced to confirm that the only reference to coronavirus on Mr Cummings’ blog was added retrospectively on 14 April (the day he returned to Downing Street).
We deplore the threats against Mr Cummings on social media and the mob hounding him outside his home in London. Some of his critics are motivated purely by political animus – few people were more pivotal to the Brexit vote and the Conservatives’ landslide general election victory in December. Yet he cannot escape responsibility for his role in the relentless polarisation of British politics and the toxification of public debate. With tragic irony, the anti-elitist mob mentality that he helped stoke has been ranged against him.
It would be a mistake to reduce the greatest crisis since the Second World War to the question of Mr Cummings’ political future, however. He may increasingly act as if he is prime minister, but we should not collude with that delusion.
On 2 March, almost five weeks after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in the UK, Boris Johnson boasted: “This country is very, very, well-prepared… we’ve got fantastic testing systems, amazing surveillance of the spread of disease.” He added, with libertarian insouciance, that “it’s very important that people consider that they should, as far as possible, go about business as usual”.
Mr Johnson, who himself later almost died from Covid-19, gave the impression of regarding the disease as little worse than seasonal flu. As a consequence, and as the British Medical Journal concluded in an excoriating judgement published on 15 May (one largely ignored by BBC News), the UK’s response was “too little, too late, too flawed”. The tragedy is that Britain had time to learn from the experience of other European countries, such as Italy, but squandered this opportunity by pursuing a de facto strategy of “herd immunity”. For the UK, one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and a global travel hub, this approach was irredeemably reckless.
In anticipation of a future inquiry, the government has already sought to divert blame to its scientific advisers. However, as Margaret Thatcher once observed, advisers advise and ministers decide. Science, an ever-evolving and contested discipline, should inform political judgements but it should not dictate them.
Mr Johnson has sought to evade accountability throughout his political career. He will doubtless seek to do so again. But no amount of rhetorical conjuring should disguise where the ultimate blame lies for the government’s many failures.
This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak