By Clare Foges in THE TIMES, 25 May 2020
Didn’t you read the small print? Yes, the headline was “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” But beneath it was a list of caveats in tiny letters: “*Unless you have the symptoms of coronavirus, and feel like leaving the city for some restorative countryside air, and think you need the support of far-off family, in which case it is perfectly acceptable — indeed laudable — to pack up the car and drive for hundreds of miles across the country, perhaps stopping for petrol and a packet of Polo mints halfway up the A1 (if you don’t cough too explosively), and to visit those in at-risk groups. Leave Home. Sod the NHS. Live Your Life.” Dominic Cummings had a microscope to read the small print, the rest of us didn’t.
Politicians and their advisers can shrug off all sorts of mistakes, but when an incident captures a negative perception about that person with perfect neatness, it clings to public memory. John Prescott’s use of two official Jaguars in the 1990s earned him a nickname that endured for decades, because it spoke to the suspicion that this man of the people luxuriated in the trappings of high office. David Cameron was dogged by the revelation he once cycled to work in parliament with a car following behind carrying his shoes, because it suggested a life of out-of-touch ease. The photograph of Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich has been circulated endlessly because it was seen as evidence that he lacked prime ministerial gravitas.
Moments such as these have staying power because they betray an uncomfortable truth. Cummings’s lockdown breach — not once, it seems, but twice — will hang around for a long time because it captures the arrogance that many accuse him of, and the entitlement that many suspect of Conservatives in general. This story is not going away.
The way various cabinet ministers defended Cummings, you might have assumed that the press had exposed a postman or accountant or some other mere consumer of government policy. But he is the creator of it. He helped to shape and communicate a set of lockdown rules that allow no “wiggle room”, no consult-your-own-common-sense. The rules said that if you have symptoms you must not leave home for seven days. The rules said no travel. The prime minister stated that “you should not be meeting family” outside your immediate household.
These were the rules, and keeping the virus under control has depended on compliance, regardless of inconvenience. It has relied on people sticking to the guidance even if they get sick, and even if they have young children. It has needed millions of us to endure lockdown and all its privations at great emotional, social and financial cost — no ifs or buts.
There have been fathers who missed their babies being born; grandparents who haven’t held grandchildren yet; funerals with few mourners. Worst of all, those who cannot kiss the forehead of someone they love before they die. Instead, care workers sit in plastic gown and mask, holding the hands of elderly people while reading aloud “goodbye letters” from their grandchildren.
Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab, a 13-year-old boy, died alone in hospital with none of his family around him. His mother and siblings could not attend the funeral because they were self-isolating. Given this level of sacrifice, to hear ministers defending Cummings’s actions as the mark of a caring father rankles. Are those who have suffered through complying with the rules simply not caring enough?
What makes Cummings’s disregard for the rules doubly galling is that he has styled himself as Westminster’s “man of the people”, champion of ordinary folk against an arrogant elite. Last autumn he chided one reporter: “You guys should get out of London and talk to people who are not rich remainers.” Whether running the campaign to Vote Leave or fighting in No 10 to “get Brexit done”, a central part of his approach has been to paint a picture of an out-of-touch establishment that looks down on normal people. Remainers and bankers, judges and journalists — they’re all in it together, laughing at the little people. How phoney this seems now. The man who has built a career on pitting a haughty “elite” against “the people” has shown that when push comes to shove there is one rule for elites such as him and another for the rest of us.
Still, though, a full apology would have rectified some of the damage and perhaps, if given early enough, neutered calls for his resignation. Though not a fan of some of his tactics, I appreciate the urgency that Cummings brings to the job. He seems determined to make significant changes rather than just enjoy a few lazy, ego-boosting lunches. I can see why the prime minister wants to keep him on. But the government’s defensive, denial-laden handling of this story has only doubled its impact.
Over the course of the weekend the mistake became a mess, and the mess a disaster. Instead of an apology from Cummings we had the arrogant assertion that he had done “the right thing”. Cabinet ministers embarrassed themselves by rewriting the rules they have been parroting for the past two months. Matt Hancock suggested Cummings was “entirely right” to go cross-country for childcare. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, declared that “taking care of your wife and young child” is a fair excuse for breaking lockdown. While trying to play down the story at the daily press conference, poor Grant Shapps was reminiscent of Comical Ali, Saddam Hussein’s spokesman during the Iraq war, who insisted things were going swimmingly even as the sound of advancing US troops could be heard in the background.
All this was compounded by the press conference held last night by the prime minister, winner of the Brass Neck Award 2020 for outstanding work in denial, obfuscation and mendacity.
With half the cabinet suggesting it is fine to break the rules in certain circumstances, the government has utterly undermined its own policy, sowing the seeds for mass disobedience. Patience with lockdown is already wafer-thin in places. How many heard the Cummings news about visiting bluebell woods 250-odd miles from home and thought “sod it, I’m off to see Mum/Dad/Grandma”?
Soon, anyone returning from abroad will be expected to isolate themselves for two weeks. With the police unable to enforce quarantine, we will be relying on people to do the responsible thing. And here is the practical problem with political hypocrisy: it makes the public less inclined to do what you tell them. Compliance with lockdown measures relies primarily not on laws and fear of punishment, but on goodwill and trust in the government. Given the current dangers — and the fear of another surge of infection — it is scarcely believable that clarity and solidarity on the lockdown have been sacrificed so that one adviser can’t be.