Seven hours in Dom World is, as he might say himself after a token apology for the language, fucking intense. In his testimony to the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, you felt he might say absolutely anything. For example, that it’s “crackers” someone like him had such a position of power in government, or that someone as incompetent as Boris Johnson should be leading it. Or that the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has serially lied to the public and parliament, and should have been sacked on numerous occasions. Or that government briefings shortly before lockdown on 23 March last year were like that scene in Independence Day when Jeff Goldblum says that your plan is a disaster and you’ve got to find another one. (This scene had several later reprises.) Or that Johnson said last April that “we should never have done lockdown, I should have been the Mayor of Jaws, now I’m going to be, get on with it.” Or that Johnson considered being injected with the coronavirus live on television in February 2020 to show it was all a scare story. Or that Cummings himself misled the nation on live TV in the Rose Garden of Downing Street about the reasons for his Durham escapades (even though we didn’t believe him anyway).
His questioners Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark were struggling to hold it together. People don’t testify to parliament in quite this way – not even Cummings has done that before. Perhaps the most exhausting aspect is trying to figure out his plan – because Cummings has one, you can be sure of that. In part, of course, it’s clearly self-exoneration – which now, at least, requires a degree of honesty and contrition that has previously eluded him. He admitted to some “terrible mistakes” and said there are many thousands of people who could have done his job better. Presumably he suspects that once an inquiry starts to look under the lid of the pandemic response, the horrors it will find are going to incriminate everyone – and that maybe he’ll escape the worst if he’s the one who removed the lid to begin with. And of course there’s the straightforward element of revenge. We shouldn’t rule out either the possibility that Cummings is simply tired of all the deception and concealment, and genuinely wants to see the country governed better.
It will take many words to unravel it all, and we’ll surely get them. But putting personal agendas and feuds to one side (yes, Carrie Symonds and her dog made an appearance, and rather dramatic it was too), Cummings’ testimony raises huge questions about the response to the pandemic not just from ministers and civil servants but from scientists.
You might be inclined to see Cummings’ assertions that he realised the inadequacies, even the lunacy, of the Government’s initial plans and the scientific advice that motivated it as more self-aggrandising: as was his notorious tendency to imply that he has seen what others have not (even if that requires some retrospective editing of his blog). But I think on this occasion it is not this. Sure, his suggestion that he and his coterie of misfits (especially the spad Ben Warner and his AI entrepreneur brother Marc) saw the flaws that all the experts missed fits with Cummings’ vision of the world as peopled by maverick geniuses labouring under the rule of blithering incompetents. But he is right to say that the plan cooked up by the scientific advisory committee Sage and the Government – in essence, the strategy dominated by the goal of achieving herd immunity in the population by natural infection, while minimising deaths – was terribly mistaken.
That is one of the key messages to emerge from this extraordinary hearing. We knew, if we were paying the slightest attention, that Johnson went from being lazy and negligent to desperate, clueless and lethally indecisive; that Hancock has twisted facts to breaking point; that Sunak has hawkishly sought to prioritise the economy over health without ever grasping that the choice is a false one anyway, and that his Eat Out To Help Out programme mostly just helped the virus prepare for a second wave. We knew that Priti Patel won’t really understand what she is talking about when she insists herd immunity was “absolutely not” part of the original plan. But the disastrous outcome of the pandemic in the UK can’t be wholly attributed to bad governmental decisions. The science that the Government allegedly followed (until that became a nuisance) was also not always reliable.
Amidst all of what columnists will doubtless still want to call the political hand grenades, I suspect this aspect of Cummings’ remarks will get lost. But it is vital. The general problems of governance that he mentions – how we can end up being led through such a crisis by a man like Johnson (or for that matter, like Cummings), how mediocrity and keep-your-head-down conformity is rewarded in public office, the hazards of groupthink – are real, but hardly any secret. But to see such flaws exposed in the science advisory mechanism is deeply troubling.
Still: if Cummings was so convinced that he was right about the flawed herd-immunity plan, and that everyone else was wrong, why, he was asked, did he – then unrivalled in his influence on Johnson – fail to do anything about it before the late lockdown cost tens of thousands of lives? He was frightened, said Cummings – frightened that he too could be wrong, and of the enormity of the consequences if so. “If I hit the panic button and then it all goes completely wrong”, he remembered thinking, “I’m going to have killed god knows how many hundreds of thousands of people.”
I can sympathise with that fear of doubting the experts. When the pandemic was still on its way from China, I was reliably assured we were in safe hands. I knew the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance by reputation, and the chief medical officer Chris Whitty was an experienced epidemiologist and not, I was told, the kind of person to be intimidated by the likes of – well, of Cummings. So as I watched the UK science advice fall out of step with that advocated in many parts of the world – as we embarked on a herd-immunity strategy many outside experts regarded as insanely dangerous – I experienced the first twinges of cognitive dissonance.
As Vallance simply murmured to Johnson that it was OK for him to shake hands with all and sundry in a hospital with Covid patients as long as you “wash your hands”; as the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries insisted that we, with lamentable PPE stocks, were an international “exemplar of preparedness”; as Vallance argued that big gatherings were OK because otherwise we’d just be at small ones where most transmission takes place; as the scientific advisory group on emergencies (SAGE) reacted with surprise and alarm to learn, as late as 16 March, that letting the virus move through the population, however “mitigated”, would probably cause hundreds of thousands of deaths – then yes, I too wondered “can my inexpert misgivings about all this really be valid?”
Ironically, what tipped me over was the abject performance from Whitty and Vallance after the revelations about Cummings’ Durham trip, and the frankly unbelievable Rose Garden press conference at which Cummings now reveals he concealed vital facts. Even he admitted in the hearing that this episode “was a major disaster for Covid policy”. But when asked about it at the ensuing government briefing, Whitty and Vallance dismissed it as a “political” matter into which they had no desire to be drawn. I was not alone in feeling their credibility evaporated at that moment – they seemed to have shown that they would not embarrass the Government even if public health was at stake.
Of course, it would be all too easy now to let the scientists, especially Vallance and Whitty, take the blame. They should not. The decisions were ultimately the responsibility of Johnson and his ministers: they own the ghastly shambles that Cummings described. Unlike them, Whitty and Vallance have been motivated throughout to do the best, safest, most responsible thing. I have been told several times that they have worked tremendously hard and conscientiously throughout. Cummings’ own testimony about the behind-the-scenes efforts of Vallance in particular to get Johnson to see reason are entirely credible. And even they eventually asserted themselves when they held a press conference in September, unchaperoned by ministers, to imply that they were unhappy about the inaction from government as the second wave began to crash down. Their message on that occasion was in stark contrast to the inaction of the Government.
This is precisely why the evident failures of scientific advice should not get entrained with the shabby litany of incompetence, political point-scoring and personal feuding that will flow from Cummings’ testimony. We should not have to rely on that to expose those failures of the science, nor to determine their causes and consequences. So far, however, there has been woefully little sign that the scientific community is ready to conduct its own accounting. From the chief scientists we have heard little beyond very British understatement about our “bad outcome” and boilerplate about the need to “learn lessons”. There are signs that advisers are going to be keen to sweep the herd-immunity issue under the rug.
Among the issues that urgently need to be examined is the fatal strand of exceptionalism that ran through the advice. As Cummings explained, a lockdown was initially ruled out on the grounds of behavioural advice: unlike the servile East Asians, the British people wouldn’t stand for such an imposition, nor for the invasiveness of an Asian-style test-and trace scheme. The then deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries suggested at one point that the advice of the World Health Organisation on the vital importance of testing was meant for lower-income countries, not for the likes of us. (Presumably she regarded the Asian habit of wearing masks to curb infection as a similar quirk, given that she advised with premature confidence that it was a bad idea.) The bespoke path we chose demanded a Blitz-like British resolve to take it on the chin. Thus we would go our own buccaneering way in the pandemic, like the global innovators we are. The international perspective, said Cummings, was pretty much absent from any planning.
Sound familiar? You have to wonder: were the supposedly independent scientists somehow infected, at least initially, with the attitudes of the Government they were advising? Cummings is surely right that the mistaken Plan A was almost a textbook example of groupthink – but if so, it is groupthink oddly in tune with a Government with libertarian, nationalist tendencies, and with Johnson’s fear of over-reacting and inflicting economic damage that might take the shine off what he imagined would be his year of basking in having “got Brexit done”.
Whatever it was that sent the science awry, we need to know. “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die,” Cummings declared. He is surely right, and all the reasons for that need to be uncovered – not least so that tens of thousands more do not, even now, meet the same fate.
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