Dominic Cummings is asking the wrong question about the UK’s pandemic response

The Prime Minster’s former aide is right to blame groupthink for the government’s failings. But which group?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

What went wrong with the United Kingdom’s response to Covid-19 in the spring of 2020? The answer is simple: the British government’s initial pandemic plan assumed that a suppression strategy would be impossible, that stringent lockdown measures would not be adhered to in this country, and that therefore a whole lot of people would die. What caused a change of approach was the realisation that this plan would mean the collapse of modern healthcare and with it even more deaths.

The initial strategy was signed off by the government’s scientific advisers, publicly laid out by its senior scientific advisers, and was, essentially, the elite consensus at Westminster and in the scientific establishment.

None of this is news! The explicit conclusion of the government’s wargaming of its pandemic plan was that a lot of people would die and it therefore needed to step up efforts to procure bodybags and increase mortuary capacity. It only abandoned this plan in light of the consequences for the NHS. I – and approximately 60 million other people – wrote about this at the time. Again, none of this is new.

The reason why this matters is that the British state will at some point face another pandemic, as well as other catastrophic but low-probability events. The solutions are often quite difficult: for example, the person who first made me realise I had underestimated the importance of the story I was covering about a new respiratory illness in Wuhan was a civil servant. They weren’t (by their own account!) particularly exceptional, a once-in-a-generation talent or anything like that. They just happened to be an experienced China-watcher, who from that knew two things: the first was that shutting down movement over the Chinese New Year, the biggest annual migration of people in human history and the equivalent of closing down Christmas here, was a big, and worrying sign about how transmissible the novel coronavirus was; and that the Chinese state has a history of being less-than-straight with outsiders.

Putting the two together, they thought, meant that we had to assume that Covid-19 was much more transmissible than then believed. I thought about that conversation today when Dominic Cummings talked about the problem during the pandemic being "groupthink" in Downing Street. This is true, but it is a problem that in and of itself leaves an obvious question: "whose group?" Because the groupthink among even pretty mediocre China-watchers was, "the Chinese state tends to lie and that New Year lockdown is really, really worrying". The groupthink among most restaurant goers at the beginning of March, 12 days before Cummings and other lockdown hawks in government were raising the alarm, was "actually, mebbe best not to risk it".

Some relevant pandemic questions, I think, are: how do you make sure that the voice of the 57th-ranked China expert in the civil service is given at least some weight compared to that of the government’s scientific and medical advisers? Another is: why, given that every restaurant in the UK was essentially empty after the first week of March, was central government still unsure on 12 March whether a lockdown was at the least worth a punt? How could the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane’s "fast data" about, for example, restaurant bookings (or rather, the lack thereof) have better informed discussions about whether the British public would tolerate lockdown? Finally, there is the question of why there was no presumption of, "OK, we might as well give lockdown a go. You never know, we might get lucky."

I’m not saying that Boris Johnson or Matt Hancock were blameless. But I’m not convinced that "is Boris Johnson a fit and proper candidate for Prime Minister?" – particularly when the man answering it is almost the definition of a unreliable witness – is the most useful question as far as the challenge of responding to the next pandemic is concerned.

[see also: Dominic Cummings is quick to blame – but he fails to understand how government works]

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

Free trial CSS