For fortunate countries, the nightmare is over – the pandemic is nearly beaten. While there will be an uptick in mortality in the winter of 2021-22 and the virus will continue to circulate as flu does, the worst is well behind us. But the recrimination is only just beginning, writes Victor Hill.
Earlier this month prime minister Johnson confirmed that there will be a public inquiry into the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK – but it will not convene until the spring of 2022. The stated objective of the inquiry will be to learn lessons for future pandemics. Those who oppose the Tory government and Mr Johnson in particular regard this exercise as a valuable opportunity to discredit the government for political purposes. Those who support the government hope that it will be an opportunity to rebut allegations that the UK fared worse than its peers, especially in the early stages of the pandemic.
Either way, the media and the political class feel sufficiently confident that the pandemic is in its final phase to enter the territory of post-Covid recrimination. (Over the last week just 23 deaths from Covid-19 were recorded in England, and we learnt that more people had died from smoking than coronavirus over the last 18 months.) So, the major news event this week was an explosive interrogation in the musty meeting rooms of the Palace of Westminster.
On Wednesday (26 May) Dominic Cummings appeared before a joint session of the House of Commons select committee on health and the select committee on science and technology. The influential health committee is chaired by former Health Secretary and prime ministerial contender Jeremy Hunt MP.
Mr Cummings’ contribution was widely anticipated: this would be a man who was at the heart of the Downing Street machine from July 2019 to November 2020 and who, as the saying goes, knew where the bodies were buried. Mr Cummings is known to have highly acerbic views on the UK civil service. Further, it was assumed that Mr Cummings bears a grudge against his former employer and would seek to embarrass the PM on live TV. Few were disappointed.
Mr Cummings’ testimony was designed to paint a picture (or perhaps more accurately a Banksy-style stencilled street mural) of organisational chaos and systemic dysfunctionality at the heart of the British state. This has been a theme of his blogs long before Mr Johnson invited him into the inner sanctum of government. Indeed, long-term, one of the most damaging legacies of this performance is likely to be a still unanswered question. Why did supposedly deft team captain Johnson ever appoint such an egregious rotter to his team in the first place?
While Mr Cummings’ seven-hour testimony (Wagner’s Ring Cycle for masochists) pointed up flaws in governmental decision-making process, it failed to land any fatal blows on Mr Johnson’s reputation. Mr Cummings accused Mr Hancock, the Health Secretary, of lying to people in meetings and to the public on numerous occasions. He thinks he should have been fired. He clearly has a low opinion of the Cabinet Office and its staff (terrifyingly s**t) whom he accused of groupthink (for initially favouring herd immunity). He thinks that the PM (whom he was advising) initially prioritised the economy over saving lives. That Mr Cummings believes that Mr Johnson, who appointed him, was unfit for office, will attract only jeers across huge swathes of Middle England. And even the most bellicose Scots Nats can spot a man with a grudge.
Mr Cummings claimed that there was no sense of urgency in government about the impending pandemic until the last week of February 2020. There was not only no anti-pandemic game plan, but nobody in the government understood that there was no game plan. It was like being in an out-of-control movie.
Much of the discussion turned on whether the government had adopted a policy of attaining herd immunity by letting the virus run its course before the prime minister was finally persuaded to lock down on 23 March 2020. This made for a rather sterile exchange: what is herd immunity? Is it the same as flattening the sombrero? And, who said what to whom and when ad nauseam – the kind of stuff that never lodges in the public mind.
One of the reasons why Mr Johnson was so dependent on the input from advisors was his unconventional route to Number Ten. Having spent eight years out of Whitehall as London mayor (2008-16) (albeit that he was Foreign Secretary for two years under Mrs May) he lacked the experienced team of insiders around him that cabinet veterans normally assemble. Mr Cummings ventured on Wednesday that it was crazy that a person such as he could have been entrusted with so much power. Once described by David Cameron as a career psychopath, Mr Cummings is a brilliant campaigner; but he appeared to concede that he is not a natural policymaker.
Which is why, interestingly, he picked the brains of such luminaries as DeepMind’s Demis Hassibis and Ben Warner, who were at odds with SAGE. Mr Johnson expended a great deal of political capital in protecting Mr Cummings after the latter’s notorious eye-test in Barnard Castle last year – something the PM must now regret given that that loyalty was not reciprocated. Thereafter, the relationship deteriorated. In his final months at Number Ten Mr Cummings was reportedly far less visible than previously because the PM had become more reliant on Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary.
Mr Cummings revealed that COBRA meetings were near useless because members of that semi-secret body are not permitted to use smartphones or PCs for security reasons. As a result, they could not verify data during meetings. He talked about Potemkin meetings – meetings that are convened just to demonstrate that something is being done. He described in some detail how officials were unable to access essential data. It was not until late April last year that senior officials were able to check in real time the number of positive coronavirus tests, hospitalisations and ICU cases.
While Mr Cummings was voluminous in his criticism of the handling of the pandemic, particularly with regards to the timing of the lockdowns, he offered only faint praise to the vaccination rollout for which Mr Johnson should surely be accorded the ultimate credit. He thinks the vaccination programme could have been accelerated by deliberately infecting volunteers. He said that tens of thousands of lives were lost through poor decision making – but that is a counterfactual. I could offer an equally fatuous counterfactual of how many more lives would have been lost if Mr Corbyn had become prime minister in December 2019.
Mr Cummings has never been a member of the Conservative Party as far as we know. He takes a dismal view of most Tory MPs. They will devoutly wish that he will never have a platform again – and it is difficult to imagine what Mr Cummings’ next career move might be. Perhaps Mr Musk could engage him to scare the Martians.
We should really be asking the questions that dispassionate generals ask their senior officers after manoeuvres. Well done, gentlemen. But what could we do better next time? Much as the dramatis personae of the pandemic are interesting and their squabbles entertaining, that is the real question.
My fear is that in the welter of recrimination, few clear-cut lessons will emerge. The public inquiry next year will cost upwards of £50 million and will disgorge perhaps two million words which very few people will ever read. It will be politicised on party lines and most witnesses will be partisan, at least to the extent that they will be defending their reputations. Ideally, an international commission would compare and contrast the policy responses of various governments once the pandemic is definitively over – but that is not likely to happen for some time.
But, chewing over Mr Cummings’ contribution, it is worth enumerating what will be the public inquiry’s likely major themes.
First, the pandemic plan bequeathed by the Coalition government turned out to be for a flu epidemic. A flu pandemic would have been relatively straightforward to contain – you isolate those who manifest symptoms and who are therefore contagious. Nobody seems to have conjectured that there could be a pandemic of a virus where most of those who passed the virus on remained asymptomatic. That characteristic made state-sanctioned lockdowns of some degree of severity inevitable. But while there had been plans for a pandemic, there had never been plans for lockdowns; and it was quite unclear how to impose a lockdown and whether the great British public (unlike the people of Wuhan) would go along with one.
The questions arising are then as follows. At what point does a lockdown become inevitable? Too early and people are deprived of their livelihoods unnecessarily; too late and lives are lost. How long should lockdowns be maintained? And how quickly can they be relaxed? If lockdowns are to work perfectly, they should be indefinite.
Mr Cummings thinks that Mr Johnson locked down too late in March 2020 against all advice. His assertion is supported by Professor Neil Ferguson’s inevitable modelling. There is a counterargument that many people who got Covid-19 in the first wave and survived may have succumbed if they had contacted the virus during the second wave which occurred in a cold winter. He further thinks that the second and third lockdowns (during which most fatalities occurred) were imposed too late. Many people will take the view that in mid-March 2020 we knew far too little about how the virus was transmitted to be confident that an immediate lockdown would work. There is another issue about whether too little was learnt from the first lockdown to precisely time the second and third lockdowns.
One theme that did not seem to come up in the Cummings Show was why the UK economy fared better in the third lockdown (29 December – 12 April) than in the first two. It’s clear that resourceful people like the British can adapt even to the most stringent restrictions on their freedoms.
In any case, the prime minister’s (and Mr Sunak’s) concerns about the economic consequences of lockdown were entirely legitimate. We now understand full well the collateral damage lockdowns inflict, not least in damage to children’s education and cancers going undiagnosed as well as pauperising the least well off. For principled libertarians like Lord Sumption, there is a moral dimension of which Cummings & Co. are oblivious. Yesterday, he wrote:
Interaction with other people is basic to human nature and to the functioning of our societies. Criminalising it impoverishes everything that makes life precious…The Cummings problem is his contempt for democracy and liberal values. He is at heart a ruthless totalitarian.[i]
There was never going to be a right or wrong way to manage lockdowns because the whole issue is mired in medical, social, economic and philosophical arguments that will never be resolved by a public inquiry.
Second, the issue of deaths in care homes. In late April last year, I alerted readers to Matt (Lord) Ridley’s research suggesting that elderly folk who had Covid-19 were being shipped out of hospitals to care homes on government orders only to pass the virus on to other residents. Why they were not systematically tested before being transferred in this way is not clear. Mr Cummings thinks it was all down to Mr Hancock’s mendacity. I suspect it was because the testing regime was unfit for purpose – tests were still inaccurate and uncollated. But we need to peer further into this swamp. This must never be allowed to happen again.
Third, there are still differences of opinion between those who believe in eliminating the virus and those who seek to manage it. Should borders be sealed at the first opportunity? That was the tactic of most east Asian countries as well as Australia and New Zealand. Clearly, Mr Johnson was reluctant to seal the borders because he believes international travel is essential to Britain’s position as a global hub. (To that extent he is the opposite of how Remainers typify him.)
Personally, I favoured the batten-down-the-hatches approach – as I expressed in a webinar last October. Yet I must admit that the eliminationist nations are now having a debate as to how their borders will ever re-open. As I mentioned last week, Australians have just twigged that until they get vaccinated, they will remain a hermit nation. The ultra-meticulous Japanese have vaccinated just five percent of their population; 80 percent of Japanese now want to cancel the Olympic Games due to open on 23 July.
As the Indian strain of the virus causes a spike in hospitalisations in hotspots such as Bolton and Blackburn, some are asking why it was permitted to enter the UK in the first place. The Indian strain was first identified in early April; but India was only put of the Red List on 23 April. The delay may have been related to the ongoing trade talks between the UK and India.
Fourth, sixteen months into the first truly global pandemic there is still a debate about the efficacy of mask-wearing. There is emerging evidence that they don’t restrict aerosol dispersion at all. In most American states vaccinated people are no longer required to wear the wretched things; but here we are still subjected to oxygen deprivation in largely empty churches.
The real question which the official UK public inquiry will be unlikely to address is how the world acquired the virus in the first place. We knew that the virus first manifested itself in Wuhan, China before Christmas 2019. From the outset, the received wisdom has been that the virus was zoonotic – it had jumped from an animal into a human as was the case with SARS and MERS. The working assumption was that a pangolin sold in the Wuhan wet market had been infected by a bat. Bats, which inhabit caves near Wuhan, are notorious vectors of human infection.
But there was always another hypothesis: that the pathogen had accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). A CIA report viewed by the Wall Street Journal this week has given that notion legs. Apparently, three lab technicians at the WIV reported Covid-like symptoms in November 2019. On Wednesday, as Mr Cummings was testifying, President Biden ordered US intelligence agencies to assess the evidence for the source of the virus within three months. Even Dr Antony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is now leaning towards the view that the virus in not natural in origin. And Facebook will no longer remove posts which claim that the virus is man-made.
The Chinese government has already attacked the president’s initiative. But there are ways of acquiring the truth despite Chinese opposition – which I’d like to explore soon.
A quick update on swifts. This year a contingent arrived early – on 10 May. They announced themselves with typical high-altitude cartwheeling and high-pitched shrieking (which I think might be laughter). But they were much less numerous than in previous years when they arrived in frenzied drifts promptly on the first of June. Sentinels of summer. Why they would want to arrive early during the wettest May on record is beyond me.
This was unfortunate, as the hand-made leaden swift vents that a local man crafted for me were installed on 11 May. As far as I can tell they remain empty.
It was when the roof was being re-done by a troupe of diamond geezers that a pair of imposing ladies arrived on a motorcycle with sidecar. They were from The Bird Society (or some such). They had come to tell me that swifts had nested in the roof of my house for generations. (Human generations.) Of course, I told them, I delight in those acrobatic birds who fly from central Africa to chilly Norfolk in late spring every year.
The motorcycle with sidecar has been spotted of late. But of swifts in the rafters, there are yet none.
[i] Cummings fails to confront the problem with lockdown, The Daily Telegraph, Thursday, 27 May 2021.