That Boris Johnson lacks the leadership skills, capacity and integrity to guide the country through a national emergency is not a new idea – it has been clear for months. But the significance of Dominic Cummings’ testimony before the House of Commons last week was that the prime minister’s former adviser provided further evidence of Johnson’s guilt for decisions that cost countless lives.
Cummings himself is a man lacking in integrity, forever associated with electoral deception and the implicit racism of the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum. Although he expressed what appeared to be genuine regret for his role in the political disasters that caused the deaths of people, he is unlikely to be a completely trustworthy storyteller. But that does not mean that his account of what happened during the time he was advising Johnson can be dismissed outright. Much of what he said last week agrees with what we already know regarding Johnson’s failures and rings true about his well-established character flaws.
Cummings’ allegations of Johnson’s conduct and Health Secretary Matt Hancock – that the former ignored scientific advice in a way that cost lives and that the latter repeatedly lied – are extremely serious and underscore the urgent need for a public investigation. to establish the The role played by the prime minister and other ministers, including those like Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who allegedly opposed the introduction of stricter social restrictions last fall, has contributed to avoidable loss of life in the past 14 months. It is not just about holding people accountable for negligence in office, but about learning how to prevent such serious mistakes from being repeated in future national emergencies. As the vaccine launch proceeds apace and the nation’s mood remains one of positive relief, Cummings’s appearance on the select committee was an important reminder that we put last year’s disasters aside under our own risk.
Cummings’ account was further proof that the state was woefully ill-prepared for a pandemic. He painted a picture of a government system in utter chaos when officials and ministers realized that the right level of contingency planning did not exist. The responsibility for this rests with ministers and officials. How could ministers and senior officials not periodically review the plans for a crisis that featured so prominently in the National Risk Register? How could the disastrous 2016 pandemic simulation exercise, which raised concerns of a lack of coordination between governments and risks to nursing homes, not prompt an urgent review of the UK’s pandemic preparedness?
Without a doubt, this government has faced the most difficult set of circumstances since World War II. Governments around the world have struggled to manage the impact of the pandemic on their citizens. But the lack of planning for an event, the risk of which was widely anticipated, affected the quality of the government’s response. Questions must also be asked about the quality and robustness of the scientific and public health advice ministers received in the early days of the pandemic. Why did it take so long for dawn that failing to implement tighter social restrictions in the spring would lead to the collapse of NHS healthcare as we know it and tens of thousands of people dying in dire circumstances, given what was happening in China? and Italy, and the warnings from outside experts before mid-March? Why did government experts defend decisions to remove testing, rather than urging ministers to increase capacity as quickly as possible to aid in a test and trace strategy? Why did they tell the public that face masks could put them at higher risk of infection in the absence of any evidence? Institutional failures provide a rude awakening to the state’s ability to respond to a wide range of national emergencies.
But these serious institutional failures cannot be used to cover up the serious political failures of Johnson and his ministers. Johnson is guilty of deaths that did not have to happen. The only conclusion to be drawn from the first wave of the pandemic was that the government took too long to introduce social restrictions and eased them too quickly in the early summer. Neil Ferguson, one of the country’s most eminent epidemiologists, said last summer that closing a week earlier, at which point many advisers inside and outside the government were urging the prime minister to do so, would have halved the death toll in the first wave. However, Cummings said Johnson regretted imposing a lockdown during the first wave and was determined not to do it again: “I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open. ”This accusation fits with what we know about the prime minister’s behavior during the critical period last fall, when scientists and others again urged him to be closed to contain the spread of the virus, but he refused. Sunak also reportedly opposed the imposition of stricter social restrictions. There was no reason to delay the imposition of social restrictions. Those who argue that there is a trade-off between such restrictions and broader costs to the economy and the economy. well-being show a dangerous lack of understanding about an exponentially spreading virus; if the government is unwilling to tolerate the collapse of the NHS and hundreds of thousands of deaths, the trade-off is always between social restrictions now and more enduring and harsher social restrictions , with more deaths than necessary, later on. That compensation was obvious last spring. However, the prime minister chose to ignore the scientific consensus, relying on the advice of discredited scientists to back up his views. It delayed introducing a breaker lockout until November and decided to ease restrictions in early December, when infection rates were high and rising. While the second wave was caused by a more contagious variant, its severity can be directly attributed to Johnson’s unwillingness to make tough political decisions. Nothing illustrates his flagrant inability for office more clearly.
A continuous threat to life
That may turn out to be the most serious political failure during this pandemic, but there have been many others. Rather than quickly develop a plan to try to protect nursing homes, Hancock issued false assurances that he had put a shield around them and that people who were discharged from hospitals to nursing homes were being screened for detect Covid, even as care home managers and family members said. they were not; Similar mistakes were made in Scotland and Wales. There were extraordinary failures in the acquisition of PPE that resulted in the government spending huge sums on equipment. unfit for purposeas NHS and care center staff faced severe shortages. Children and youth have failed at every turn: Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has done little to help them access education while schools were closed and to help them catch up on missed opportunities. He remains in office despite his huge mistakes in the test results scandal, with similar problems also anticipated by experts this year due to government decisions.
The government also continues to make serious and repeated mistakes. Cummings drew attention to the failure of border policy last year. In April, Johnson delayed putting India on the red list for three weeks because he reportedly did not want to cancel his business trip; this helped seed variant B.1.617.2 in the UK, which will likely require a delay to relax social restrictions. Without tighter restrictions on international travel, there is the risk of a third wave caused by vaccine-resistant strains from abroad. This could undermine what has been achieved with the successful launch of the vaccine, for which the government deserves credit.
Despite that unfolding, the pandemic remains a threat to health, well-being and the economy. Emerging data on the higher transmissibility of the dominant B.1.617.2 variant in the UK suggest that the government should delay the final relaxation of restrictions planned for June 21 for a few weeks, at least until the summer school holidays. , when transmission risks will increase. be shorter. The government should also introduce more restrictions on international travel during the summer in accordance with the scientific advice and, assuming things go well in the fall, urgently advance the public inquiry.
But we don’t need a public inquiry to tell us what is clear: Johnson is in no condition to be prime minister. It is responsible for tens of thousands of preventable deaths. Those who supported Johnson’s bid for Conservative leadership – not just Cummings, but also the MPs who backed him despite knowing that he lacks the leadership and integrity requirement for public office – are complicit. The pandemic has proven to be a tragic point: that the costs inflicted by incompetent leaders who treat politics more like a game than a matter of life and death can actually be very painful.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism