The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, was a temporary adviser to the DHSC last year and is a Harvard senior fellow
As revenge theatre, Dominic Cummings’ parliamentary testimony had it all: a rich cast of villains including Dilyn the dog, warring Spiderman ministers and even the ghost of Donald Trump. Almost no one was spared, not least the prime minister who Cummings described as an out of control “shopping trolley”. No former senior adviser has turned in such a dramatic way on a still-serving prime minister, nor against such a tragic backdrop.
Voters won’t pay much heed to an embittered Rasputin whose breaking of lockdown made him a pantomime villain. Some of Cummings’ claims were totally wild. But others were deeply telling: about his turbulent relationship with Boris Johnson and the dysfunctional machinery of the British state.
“This is the press release; where is the actual plan?” Cummings quoted a colleague as saying, on seeing the government’s “contain, delay, mitigate” pandemic strategy in early March. I recognise that sense of vertigo; of realising that reams of words conceal a vacuum. It was quite a familiar feeling when I worked in Number 10 in 2015 and 2016. Long before the pandemic struck, large parts of Whitehall were broken, the Department of Health was indeed a “smoking ruin”, and NHS headquarters, having hoovered up the best talent, was a separate fiefdom doing its own thing. When the crisis hit, it proved impossible to put Humpty back together.
The mystery is why Cummings, hugely powerful as one of the only people Johnson listened to, didn’t write the strategy himself. As a longstanding critic of the machine, it’s strange that he professes to have been shocked that officials failed to second-guess a vacillating prime minister. He lamented that “no one gets to grips with who’s actually in charge” but that was his job. It’s not easy to get anything done from Number 10: the challenge is working out how to drive a machine which easily slides into complexity and inertia. The reason Johnson should have attended the early Cobra meetings, for example, is not for their content, but because his presence would have sent a message to the system.
What rings out from Cummings’ testimony is frustration that he couldn’t control the prime minister. A shopping trolley, after all, can be steered. Having helped him into power, Cummings became disappointed in his lack of influence over Johnson, just as Steve Hilton, another maverick adviser, became bitter about David Cameron. Thinking they were kingmakers, they forgot that their bosses were very much their own men.
The system was also out of control, not helped by Johnson’s apparent liking for chaos and seemingly toxic relationships at the top. Cummings’ hysterical attacks on Matt Hancock sounded like a child stamping his foot: plotting against ministers in a crisis saps the two things you most need — time and trust.
Underneath it all, the rest of the system was creaking. It was a colossal mistake to shroud the scientific advisory bodies, Nervtag and SAGE, in secrecy. Their models were presented as gospel and many of their papers were not published. Had they been more open to challenge, the chief medical officer and main epidemiologists might not have taken so long to change their advice about locking down in the first place. Yet despite Cummings telling the committee that the secrecy was “catastrophic”, he didn’t change it. Either it suited him, or he faced resistance from a culture where it is the default. The contrast with Taiwan, whose successful battle against the virus was based partly on its totally open approach, is striking.
In mid-March 2020, as Cummings was ranting his way through scenes he likened to the Independence Day film, I was wading through treacle in the bowels of the Department of Health as a lowly temporary adviser. I found myself with well-meaning people, some of them seriously clever, trapped in a byzantine web of arms-length agencies they didn’t control. Every bit of the system seemed to think it knew best, and almost no one seemed to look abroad. NHSX, a joint unit of government and the NHS, decided that it should build the NHS Covid app — and failed. Public Health England floundered, while telling ministers everything was fine. The local government department refused to believe for weeks that hard-pressed local authorities were sitting on emergency money which was supposed to save care homes.
The lack of data was astounding, with different agencies presenting conflicting death figures. Gradually, the best and brightest came to the fore, some of them very junior. The data got better, largely due to the insistence of Hancock. Notably, the success of vaccine procurement was achieved by giving the task to the venture capitalist Kate Bingham.
How can the UK have fared so badly? It wasn’t a lack of effort: officials were dedicated and exhausted. The timing of lockdowns is only part of the story. The failure to rapidly construct effective tracing and quarantine systems, to close borders, to get enough PPE to where it was most needed, to make a straightforward promise to workers that they would get paid if they had to quarantine, all of these will probably have been fatal.
Would another prime minister have done much better? Tempting as it is to say yes, I am not entirely sure. Boris Johnson likes to cultivate uncertainty, not a good thing in a crisis. But it puts the onus even more on the system having a range of options ready to go. What Cummings seems to have revealed is that at each juncture, there were never any thought-through alternatives. The wiring of the system is fatally wrong. That is the true tragedy.