Dominic Cummings Tells a Chilling Story of British Failure

What impact will Dominic Cummings’s extraordinary seven-plus hours of testimony Wednesday have on Boris Johnson’s government and Britain’s examination of its pandemic performance? Not much, is the cynical view. After all, Johnson’s mistakes in the first waves of Covid-19 have been well covered. And Cummings, the prime minister’s former top adviser who was dismissed in November, is hardly a neutral observer.

And yet, like him or loathe him, what made Cummings’s parliamentary account so explosive wasn’t that it revealed much that people didn’t know already. Rather it provided chilling confirmation of what hasn’t been properly acknowledged by those in power: that the death toll of the past year wasn’t just a result of the new coronavirus, but also of the terrible shortcomings in planning, decision making and leadership.

The U.K.’s official pandemic inquiry — which Johnson has kicked down the road to 2022 — will have many uncomfortable questions to ask. Why was Britain’s death toll so high? Why did so many people die in care homes? Why did it take so long to put lockdown measures in place? And why was more than 20 billion pounds ($28 billion) spent on a test-and-trace system that largely didn’t work? According to Cummings, the distressing reason for all of these failures is a combination of institutional chaos and personal weakness at the top of Johnson’s administration.

The man who was once a combination of Svengali and chief consigliere to the prime minister — the second-most powerful person in government (possibly even one notch higher than that) — described a government of “lions led by donkeys.” He declared Johnson “unfit for the job” and claimed that Health Secretary Matt Hancock lied repeatedly to cabinet colleagues and the public, including over shortages of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses, and that he pleaded with Johnson to fire him. The upshot of all these failings, according to Cummings: “Tens of thousands of people who died didn’t need to die.”

For a flavor of the bedlam in Downing Street, Cummings described the moment in March 2020 when Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara got wind of the inadequacy of existing pandemic plans and rushed into the prime minister’s office to tell him and Cummings that the country was “absolutely f----d.” As Britain teetered on the edge of catastrophe, Johnson and others thought the real risk wasn’t the health danger but people’s overreaction to it and the impact on the economy, Cummings said.

The ex-adviser confirms that the government had pretty much resigned itself to the Swedish strategy of “herd immunity” — whereby resistance happens naturally once enough people have had the virus — until they realized that it would cause the collapse of the National Health Service and hundreds of thousands of deaths. It was this “single peak” strategy that meant testing, vaccine development and other imperatives weren’t taken seriously at first, Cummings said.

If only they’d been more transparent about what the infection data were showing and the assumptions that the government was making, then the initial disastrous strategy (and the subsequent death toll) might have been very different. “It was literally a classic historical example of groupthink in action,” Cummings said. The same groupthink meant that policies that proved so effective in Singapore, Taiwan and elsewhere — from test-and-trace to border controls — were dismissed as unworkable or unsuitable to Britain.

Johnson himself comes across as shallow, poorly served by his blame-deflecting advisers (Cummings included), divided in his own instincts and generally the wrong man at the wrong time. Cummings went so far as to accuse Hancock of criminal negligence. Those are charges so serious that they’ll need backing up with evidence. Hancock will have his chance to rebut them in his own committee appearance but it’s hard to see his reputation quite recovering.

Cummings takes aim at so many policies and officials, indeed the entire culture of British politics, that a reform-minded person would struggle to know where to start. That may make it easier for Johnson to simply say that elected officials don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch and creating Cummings’s model of Platonic order. And “Dom” was at the heart of power when this was all taking place. He’s culpable, too, as he admitted.  

The public certainly have no love for Cummings, a pivotal figure in the toxic Brexit wars, and no particular appetite to rehash the sufferings of the past year right now. Though he was an architect of Britain’s split from the European Union, Johnson’s defenders see him as someone who hates on his great country rather than appreciating its many virtues.

Longer term, however, the Confessions of Dominic will form part of the historical record and provide fodder for countless opposition questions in Parliament. It will feed into the eventual public inquiry, and it may eat away at public confidence should another crisis arise. The accounts of government bungling are acutely painful for those who lost family and friends and those scientists and others who called for earlier action.  

Johnson is no doubt counting on a strong economic recovery, continued vaccine success and a short public attention span to push past this chapter. Perhaps, but in his withering critique Cummings has forced a debate about the pandemic record far earlier than Johnson wanted. And he has put Conservative lawmakers and the party on notice that while it may win elections, this leadership team has lost countless lives. Some senior Tories may decide to change that No. 10 team before voters do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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