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Cummings, not goings

 “Yond Cassius hath a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous”

Well, that was excruciating. Yesterday we were treated to a prime-time TV spectacle of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor Dominic Cummings sitting at a picnic table in the Downing Street Rose Garden trying to explain why his priorities are so much more important than those of the rest of us. I spent most of it squirming uncomfortably, muttering ‘make it stop, make it stop’ under my breath.

Whatever their justification – and I have no doubt that to Cummings and Mary Wakefield, his wife, their flight to Durham was entirely the right and proper thing to do  – the fact remains that they did what others have lost their jobs over. In Scotland, Dr. Catherine Calderwood, the Chief Medical Officer was forced to resign for going to her second home twice, a few weeks into the lockdown. In Oxford, the government scientist Professor Neil Ferguson had to do likewise after arranging to meet someone – his girlfriend – who, on the grounds that she’s still married, is presumably not in the same household as he is.

The lockdown rules that Cummings broke were set by the Government. As the PM’s SPAD, it could be argued that he helped make the rules. So why did he not feel that he was obliged to keep them? Let’s leave aside the fact that they were doing what they thought would be the best option for their four year old. It’s a pretty poor parent who puts political expediency above the welfare of their child. Actually, I’ll just leave that thought there for a minute…

Anyway, at a time when much of the rest of the country was doing its damnedest to “Stay Home, Support the NHS, Save Lives”, the man who has had the ear of this Prime Minister since 2016, decided not to do that. Apparently, they drove the 260 miles to Durham and didn’t stop or interact with anyone on the way. Really? With a four-year-old? I’m impressed their bladders could last that long. Mine couldn’t. TMI? OK, let’s move on. There are people who haven’t seen their relatives for weeks – in my case it’s my 87 year old mother who has health issues that I haven’t seen since the beginning of March. There are people who couldn’t attend their parents’ or siblings’ funerals, or hold their hands as they died because they were following the government’s rules. Whether Cummings went to Durham or not wouldn’t have changed those circumstances. However, what he should have done was say, immediately, “I did this. It was against the rules. I did it because I panicked and I believed it was the right thing to do for my child. But it was against the rules and I am sorry. I’ve offered to resign”. The great New Labour press machine under spin doctor extraordinaire Alastair Campbell would have had a statement about a Labour advisor acting similarly out immediately.

Instead, we’ve had a misleading first statement, flimsy arguments, back-editing what’s been written already and the Conservative Central Press Office making members of the Cabinet send out a variety of Stand-By-Your-Man tweets. They then had to stick a mic up in the Rose Garden when the Daily Mirror and political editor Pippa Crear played a blinder and came back with evidence that he’d actually been out and about in Durham and back and forth to London. A 30 minute drive to ‘test your eyesight’? Really? That was the point at which I gave up and switched over to The Chase.

There is a cynical part of me that wonders whether the Downing Street press team were happy to have the focus switched to Cummings’ transgressions to distract from the damning Sunday Times Insight report that hit the front page on Saturday. “22 days of dither and delay” is a truly shocking indictment of the poor way the coronavirus was handled initially. The most telling line from yesterday’s Downing Street squirm-fest came from one of the journalists who suggested that Boris Johnson knew all about Cummings’ lockdown jaunt and only stated to care once it hit the papers.

Johnson needs to heed his own election-victory words. Those voters in traditional non-Tory seats who put their trust in him, whose support he has borrowed are going to turn against him if he spends the next four years listening to the whisperings of his Iago and ignoring the electorate. And worse, looking like he doesn’t care either.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Editor-in-Chief across the BMJ portfolio.

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