1. The Successful Strategy and Numbers
Congratulations to the Government and Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings. The numbers are going down. Obviously any deaths as a result of Covid-19, or anything for that matter – other illnesses do still exist – is very sad and one too many, however considering the numbers we were seeing in April, the death rate for 24th May 2020 was a remarkably low 118 – the lowest it’s been for 2 months since 74 died on 23rd March 2020. The following day it was 121, on the 26th May – 134.
Although that landmark achievement has been overlooked by mainstream media, I think it’s important to point it out for context in the Dominic Cummings story. We know the numbers have been falling consistently since the peak on 10th April 2020 and last week confirmed it emphatically. It would have been mightily ironic and unjust in that momentous week if one of the architects of that success was jettisoned. Cummings should not have been fired or forced to resign for numerous reasons outlined in this article addressing all of the key issues and more raised.
2. Ungrateful Critics & The Furlough Scheme
For that outcome to have occurred would have spoken to a perception of a nation totally ungrateful for the support its government, advised by Cummings had provided. The Conservative government had already pumped in an eye watering £100 billion into the economy by 30th April 2020. The furlough scheme alone is costing around £14 billion per month, plus there are numerous other initiatives to financially support the nation through this crisis. The final bill could be as much as £298bn just for this financial year (April 2020 to April 2021), according to the Office for Budget Social Responsibility. The final total could be even higher. Leaked Treasury documents suggested the figure could be as astronomical as £337bn.
The UK has gone a lot further than many other nations in supporting its workers and I think the critics should bear that in mind when attacking the government and individuals within it such as Cummings who most likely had a say in and influenced the furloughing decision.
In a really big week of announcements – significant extra funding for transport infrastructure, announcements about schools re-opening for all age groups from 15th June 2020, furlough extensions and amendments, non-essential retail to open up etc… all of them were well and truly over shadowed by the Cummings story surrounding alleged breaking of the lockdown rules.
3. Legitimate Reason covered by the Regulations
My opinion on this both before and after watching his press conference on Bank Holiday Monday 25th May 2020 was that Cummings had legitimate reason to go to Durham and I fully support the Prime Minister in giving his fulsome backing to Cummings. As you will recall at the Downing Street Press Conference later the same day, the PM insisted that Mr “Cummings had acted responsibly and legally and with integrity.”
I never saw or thought there was any clear, objective reason to sack him or even demand his resignation. Furthermore, it matters not a jot in the grand scheme of things and particularly considering the stage the nation was at in its battle against covid-19. Please refer to Impact section below.
In his statement Cummings said that his wife had suspected covid-19 and he feared that he could be next as it was rife in Number 10 and was extremely concerned that should both become incapacitated at the same time there would be no-one to look after their 4 year old son. They considered the best thing to do was go to the family home in Durham. This he believed would be covered under the ‘exceptional circumstances’ caveat in section 6d of the government’s lockdown regulations.
4. He Was Backed by Jenny Harries and Durham Police
Furthermore, Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England defined such “exceptional circumstances” as being those involving child care. She confirmed this at the Downing Street Press Conference on 23rd March 2020, the day the lockdown was announced. Whether or not the public people knew of or agreed with section 6d, that was his rationale. Even Durham Police in concluding their own investigation last week stated on 28th May 2020 that he did not breach the lockdown rules by driving to Durham.
Lack of Respect
5. It was solely the decision of his Manager, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson
I think one of the things highlighted by what I can only describe as a witch hunt against Cummings is the complete lack of respect for authority figures, both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and his Chief Adviser. Whilst I accept a degree of legitimate scrutiny and interest in public figures is part and parcel of a democratic society, whatever people think of this case, the PM alone is Cummings’s line manager as well as PM. He considered all the facts as presented to him by his employee and decided to retain him, insisting that Mr Cummings had “acted responsibly and legally and with integrity“. That’s in his gift entirely and should have been the end of the matter, but oh now, the critics – media, MPs and general public were having none of it and harangued and hounded both men all week.
On top of this there was a lack of respect and empathy shown for the fact he’d lost is Uncle during the pandemic and also the fact that he, his wife and 4 year old son all got very ill during their self-isolation.
6. The Nation was Facing the Peak of the Epidemic and Needed Cummings to be at the Heart of Government with the Prime Minister and Many others in Downing Street catching Covid-19
Cummings is the Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister. This isn’t some menial, junior job. It’s obviously an important job that carries a lot of pressure. Judging by his bosses staunch defence of him, he’s doing very well at it and wasn’t about to be sacked over something so relatively minor. He wouldn’t say it himself, but he could argue an exceptional circumstance was his role in the government especially at the very peak of a national crisis, on top of which, the PM had covid-19 at the same time and his health was visibly deteriorating. Further adding to his worries was the fact that so many in No 10 had gone down with covid-19.
In fairness I have to say one of the problems around this was the fact that the PM is not trusted to be truthful on all matters, hence his saying he knew all the facts and had reached a decision wasn’t enough for the media and other critics. That is regrettable, although in this age of distrust of politicians and scepticism I suspect any PM would have been questioned robustly about the story.
7. Legitimate Reason Within the Rules – Cummings Presents his side of the story in the Downing Street Garden on Bank Holiday Monday 25th May 2020
Prior to Cumming’s press conference in the Downing Street garden I had a sense that there may well have been other personal, health related reasons that Cummings has disclosed to his boss, the Prime Minister, which he did not want made public and quite rightly were none of the public’s business to know about. For instance it’s been revealed that his Uncle Sir John Laws died on Palm Sunday, 5th April 2020. That in itself would not have been a reason to make a separate, specific trip up to Durham, but might have been a factor in his thinking considering Sir Laws had been ill in London for some time.
Until the 25th May 2020 we did not know the full extent of his 24th May 2020 conversation with the Prime Minister, suffice to say it seemed to go on for a number of hours and the PM must have been satisfied with what he heard for him to announce at the Downing Street Press Conference that he was “not marking him down as he had acted responsibly and legally and with integrity… They were the actions of any reasonable father.”
I think it would have been and still would be grossly unfair and disproportionate to dismiss Cummings based on this. He’s provided his account and his boss has accepted it. Whether the media, MP’s or the general public agree or not is of no great concern. They aren’t his employer. Considering the significant financial sums at stake [One Rule for Cummings’ section] that’s no trifling matter.
Maybe Cummings over reacted and panicked in response to his wife’s sickness on 27th March 2020 as she was soon over the illness, yet he got ill himself, plus his little boy. To quote from his statement:
“I drove the three of us up to Durham that night, arriving roughly at midnight. I did not stop on the way. When I woke the next morning, Saturday the 28th of March, I was in pain and clearly had Covid symptoms, including a bad headache and a serious fever. Clearly I could not return to work any time soon.
For a day or two we were both ill, I was in bed, my wife was ill but not ill enough that she needed emergency help. I got worse, she got better. During the night of Thursday the 2nd of April, my child woke up, he threw up and had a bad fever. He was very distressed, we took medical advice which was to call 999. An ambulance was sent, they assessed my child and said he must go to hospital. I could barely stand up, my wife went with him in the ambulance, I stayed at home, he stayed the night in hospital.
In the morning my wife called to say that he had recovered, seemed back to normal, doctors had tested him for Covid and said they should return home.
There were no taxis. I drove to the hospital, picked him up, then returned home. I did not leave the car or have any contact with anybody at any point on this short trip. The hospital’s – I don’t know what, roughly five miles or something away, two miles, three miles, four miles, something like that.”
Arguably this is the crux of the matter and what lockdown was meant to avoid. I appreciate his reasoning but clearly he got worse during or within 24 hours of the journey and less than a week later his son was being driven to hospital in an ambulance. This is hardly an endorsement or encouragement to the public of travelling such a long distance during a pandemic with strict lockdown rules in place. You could say that was punishment enough.
8. Is there one rule for Cumming, another for the General Public?
I don’t think there is. However if he was to lose his employment over this then I would have to agree with that statement and the one rule for “the public” would be in favour of the public and discriminate against chief advisers, for I know of no member of the general public who has been fired or forced to resign from their job for breaking lockdown rules, or simply being perceived to have broken the rules and I am certain many have in their own small way and that is on them and their conscience. Some footballers have been fined for breaking the lockdown, but that’s it.
9. Risk of Unfair Dismissal Claim
If that happened to Cummings he would have a case to say he’d been unfairly treated and claim unfair dismissal. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the fine for a breach of lockdown was £60 at the time (this increased to £100 in England from 13th May 2020). That initial figure is equivalent to a parking fine in London. This indicates the government don’t view it as a serious criminal act. There have been almost 17,000 breaches to date. I suspect not one of those people lost their jobs.
There is no logic or legitimate reason why what “might have been a minor infringement,” as Durham Police described the trip from Durham to Barnard Castle on 12th April 2020, should cost a man his livelihood. It would be grossly disproportionate and if Boris Johnson were to sack him on these grounds, he would be risking an Employment Tribunal claim for unfair dismissal and breach of contract. The government could be looking at a £1/2 million pound claim just for a minor breach that the government decided was only valued as a £60 fine!!
If the media is so keen on maintenance of strict lockdown rules, perhaps every single reporter and photographer in the media scrum outside Cumming’s house much of the final week of May should be fired for not maintaining the 2m distance between one another? Or is it one rule for the press pack, another for political advisers?
Similarly, are we going to be fair and take into consideration all the sun lovers packing out beaches up and down the country from Brighton to Bournemouth and from Southend to Southport last week? They weren’t maintaining 2m social distancing. Should they all be fined to and forced to quit their jobs? Or is it one rule for special advisers, another for the general public?
Has he been a hypocrite?
Has Cummings been a hypocrite? I don’t believe he has been for as far as I can recall he’s not spoken at any press conferences or other public forums and told the British public what to do and how to observe the lockdown. If he has please share the evidence.
Even if he had, he’s explained his reasoning and that’s been accepted and understood by his line manager, the Prime Minister, within the legitimate context of “exceptional reasons.” I got the strong sense if the situation arose again he’d do exactly the same. The journalists should have asked him but failed to do so.
Did he bring the Government into disrepute?
From an employee relations perspective you could argue, as many MP’s, commentators and members of the general public did, that he did bring his employer, the government into disrepute. Unquestionably the furore over this has detracted from the vital ‘Stay at home/protect the NHS/Save Lives’ message the government has promoted since March, the falling death rate, track and trace and gradual lifting of the lockdown. However that is only the case if there has been a clear breach of the rules and it’s been decided by the PM, Cabinet and Durham Police that there wasn’t.
In fact, it’s been used as an opportunity to re-emphasise the importance of the guidance. I think that trip was twofold. He might not have been feeling 100% to drive 260 miles back down to London, but I suspect Barnard Castle is a favourite place of his that he’d not been to for a long time and he just fancied going there as he was so close to it. I don’t blame or condone him for that after all he’d been through in the previous fortnight. That is speculation on my part, but sounds a more plausible reason. It may or may not be true, but if it is in part, I daresay his critics would have had more respect for him if he’d openly said that – even if the testing if he could drive OK reason was also genuine. In such a febrile, poisonous political, media atmosphere one can hardly blame him for wanting to not provide his full rationale.
If you compare his misdemeanor to many of the things someone like President Donald Trump has done and survived, what he did or didn’t do, doesn’t bear comparison.
What was the Impact of the alleged breach?
10. No Evidence His Visit Had Any Negative Impact on the Infection or Covid-19 Death Rate in Durham
There’s been much talk of the negative impact keeping him in post will have on the enforcement of the lockdown going forward. I don’t accept that at all. There is no evidence for that whatsoever. If you disagree, I would love to see the evidence that his visit increased the spread of the virus and death rates in his home city.
As I said at the start, far from criticising him, if he is perceived as the behind the scenes architect of the strategy the country should be applauding, not castigating him, for the effective strategy and messaging what has resulted in falling death rates over the past week and in fact ever since the peak was reached on 10th April 2020.
Moreover, the public have had long enough to work out the importance and value of the strong instructions issued. If carelessness and reckless breaches of the guidelines results in a second spike then sorry, but that’s on the general public, not Dominic Cummings or anyone else.
If anything the biggest impact Cumming’s action took were personal – on himself and his son. He said he caught covid-19 the day after the long 260 mile drive to Durham and for reasons undisclosed had to take his son to hospital during his 14 day self-isolation. By being in the close confines of a car with his sick wife Mrs Wakefield for a minimum 5+ hours drive it’s hardly surprising. That’s a pretty clear warning and lesson in itself for Cummings and the wider public. Perhaps it might have been better for the media to have highlighted that last week.
Why is no 10 Downing Street a Hotbed of Covid-19?
One of the many interesting things revealed during his press conference was that he feared catching covid-19 due to many of the staff working within close proximity of one another and most having had symptoms of covid-19. “At this point most of those who I work with most closely – including the Prime Minister himself, and others who sit within 15 feet [sic 4.5m] of me every day – either had had symptoms and had returned to work, or were absent with symptoms.”
I suspect they’re working a lot closer than that as transmission should not be happening if people are keeping the minimum 2m social distance from each other. Why was that? How far within 15 feet of each other do staff work and meet in Downing Street? Were they not following the advice created in and emanating from that building? I remarked at the time and still notice it now. During the daily press briefings the 2-3 speakers simply do not appear to be standing a minimum of 2m apart even when it’s just two at the press conference. It’s not as if there’s not sufficient space in that huge room. It’s as if the herd immunity strategy, denied by the government, was and still is in operation inside Number 10.
11. Does Strict Adherence to Lockdown Restrictions Truly Matter?
This is symbolic and all of this furore, including the actions of those below, who resigned, demonstrates that there might be a lack of genuine belief in the requirement for such a strict application of lockdown and social distancing rules for those who are fit and healthy, without underlying health issues. Their actions in a way have shown that an omission to strictly follow it is not automatically a death sentence and does not automatically equate to transmission of the virus. Admittedly Boris Johnson stretched that point a bit too far for his liking, so too did Cummings, but by and large there has been no significant health consequence whatsoever of people driving long distances to visit parents, second homes or meet lovers for secret trysts. In spite of all that, the death rates has fallen significantly, the lockdown is lifting and even today the government, from nowhere, has just announced that those 2 million people shielding can now leave their houses from 1st June 2020.
At the same time I fully respect and acknowledge the importance of the restrictions and failure to follow them has had consequences – we saw that with the PM’s ending up fighting for his life in hospital for a week and the Cummings family all getting very ill.
12. What is the Point of Resignations?
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, what really would be the value of the resignation or dismissal of Cummings? As stated earlier he’s not breached the regulations in such a significant way that it should cost him his job (even allowing for his key role); neither has he breached his contract of employment. He’s not the face of the government strategy in a way that Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Professor Chris Witty and Professor Sir Patrick Vallance etc.. have been, speaking regularly from the No 10 podium advising us all how to behave during this lockdown.
After a similar furore, on 5th April 2020 Dr Catherine Calderwood resigned at the Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer. So too did Professor Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist whose modelling helped shape Britain’s corona virus lockdown strategy. Exactly one month after Dr Calderwood resigned, on 5th May 2020 he also resigned as a government adviser after breaching the rules (lockdown and marital – well his lover did anyway) by receiving visits at his home from his married lover.
We’re 1 & 2 months on respectively from each resignation. Can anyone tell me what difference it’s made as I can’t think of any? Other than quickly shutting down a story that the media would have made a meal of, in practical terms I saw no benefit of their resignations. If anything it’s been a negative as the respective governments have lost key advisors at the worst possible time. An apology and moving on was all that was required.
With Cumming’s all the media and critics want is a sacrificial lamb, a scalp, before they await their next victim. I salute Cummings, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet for standing up to their critics and the bully boy tactics of the press pack seeking to unjustly hound the man out of office.
A Word to the Adviser
When all is said and done, whilst Cummings had every right to stand his ground based on the regulations, on reflection it might have been wiser to apologise for the offence his actions undoubtedly caused to those who perceived him to be blatantly breaching the rules and/or at the every least the spirit of the lockdown. This might have helped shut down the story and create a more harmonious pathway forward. As it is there’s still a great deal of disquiet over this and it’s taken the heinous murder of George Floyd in Minnesota on the same day as his press conference and the announcement of a number of much welcomed lockdown restrictions being lifted from 1st June 2020 to push this story of the front pages.
As I said at the start, the rapidly falling covid-19 deaths rates, dropping as low as 118 last week-end, were the most important numbers of the week to focus on, not the 260 miles to Durham and 30 miles to Barnard Castle.
© Tiemo Talk of the Town
Photo – Courtesy of BBC