Richard North, 27/05/2021  
 


For obvious reasons, I was not around to watch the start of the great Cummings bonanza – 9.30 in the morning is an hour unknown to me. But even with – by my standards – a reasonably early start, it was gone midnight before I'd worked though the entire seven-hour session, taking notes as I went.

Like him or hate him – or a bit of both – it would be churlish not to commend Cummings for his stamina, and his forbearance in tolerating some of the more inane questions from some of the MPs. And, by the time the session had finished at just past 4.30 in the afternoon, it is not difficult to concede that Johnson's former chief advisor had given us a great deal to think about.

In fact, so much has he given us – some fact, some quite obviously fiction and some more bent than a Uri Geller spoon – that Cummings has presented the joint Science and Technology and Health and Social Care Committees with a considerable problem in unravelling the many strands of evidence that they have been offered.

Certainly, so much was covered that no-one could credibly argue that it is possible in a space of a few hours to present a dispassionate analysis of the session in the form of a newspaper report. And simply covering the highlights – lurid or otherwise – would not only do a disservice to the importance of the session but would doubtless misrepresent the narrative presented.

One can get a taste of how much damage Cummings has done, though, by the leader in the Telegraph, which quite unashamedly sides with its boy in declaring: "Dominic Cummings' testimony was a display of vengeful score-settling".

"The former aide", it splutters indignantly, "proved that he was unsuitable for power - and needs to produce the evidence for his extraordinary accusations", having denounced Johnson as a media-obsessed incompetent unfit for office, accused Hancock of criminal failings, castigated the entire government machine for industrial levels of ineptitude and for good measure derided Johnson's paramour as "crackers".

Anything that provokes that sort of response from the Telegraph cannot be all bad, and makes for an interesting contrast to the Guardian editorial which calls Cummings's testimony, "a vivid portrait of failure". Johnson's former adviser, it says, "is not the most reliable narrator, but his damning account of the prime minister's flaws is supported by all the evidence".

Most papers go for the biff-bam personality stuff – some, like The Times, more than others, which headlines: "Dominic Cummings claims Boris Johnson did say let the bodies pile high", something which the BBC was said to have reported correctly, while The Sunday Times didn't.

For my part, though, the session confirmed without equivocation that the official epidemic plan was a failure but, perhaps as importantly, had Cummings illustrating that, to this day, none of the players involved – and especially himself – really understands why.

Very early into the session, Cummings takes us through the events of the early days, telling us that, on 25 January 2020, he sent a text to Hancock asking him where we were with "scanning the pandemic operations plans". "Are we completely up to speed on this", he asked, "is it resourced the way it should be, etc., etc".

Crucially, although coronavirus was already an issue, Cummings asked him: "to what extent have you investigated preparations for something terrible like Ebola or a flu pandemic. Please ensure we take a risk-averse approach to funding preparations in the SR [strategic review]".

Hancock replied that "we've got full plans up to and including pandemic level, regularly prepped and refreshed by the CMO and epidemiologists". "We're stress testing now", he added, saying "it's our top tier risk register". Significantly, Cummings replied, "Great! I'm reading about the CDC preparations for a flu pandemic. It's very worrying".

I would like to stress … and apologise for the fact that it is true that I did this, but I did not … follow up on this and push it the way that I should have done. We were told in Number 10 at the time that this is literally the top of the risk register. This has been planned and there's been exercises on this over and over again. Everyone knows exactly what to do".

It's sort of tragic in a way, Cummings observed, that he didn't take it further and go through all the documents, especially with his reputation for not trusting things, getting outside experts to look at it all. Then, he says, we would have figured out much earlier that all the claims about brilliant preparations and how everything was in order were basically completely hollow. But we didn't figure this out until the back end of February.

For all the hours of testimony, this section, glossed over by much of the media, was one of the most important parts of Cummings's testimony. Later, he complains of groupthink but here, he demonstrates that he was every bit as much in the thrall to it, with the references to influenza. Coronavirus, or a SARS-like disease, wasn't mentioned once.

But what was especially significant is the reference to the Risk Register, a document kept by the Cabinet Office which set out the most likely adverse events that were likely to be confronted.

In 2008, the National Risk Register took the view that a new disease like SARS spreading to the UK was "low", and any impact would be relatively low. The Cabinet Office kept this original reference to SARS in both the 2010 and the 2013 editions of its risk register but, in 2015, the two long paragraphs describing the SARS threat had shrunk to one sentence.

Then, in the 2017 edition of the National Risk Register, references to SARS had completely disappeared. They were replaced with a generic warning about "emerging infectious diseases" (EIDs), the potential consequences of which were put at "several thousand people experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to up to 100 fatalities".

Then, and subsequently, pandemic flu was deemed to be a much greater threat. Up to half of the UK population, the Cabinet Office warned, could experience symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 deaths.

And there is the fundamental omission which blighted the government's response to the coming Covid-19 epidemic. Whether Cummings would have picked up the omission had he studied the documents more carefully, we will never know, but the indications are that it is unlikely. To this day, he does not seem to have realised that the official plan was deficient by virtue of it being written for influenza rather than for a SARS-like disease.

But it is that level of scrutiny that is going to make or break Cummings's testimony. He claims to have been the first to have realised that the official plans wasn't working, and pressed the "panic button", forcing Johnson to commit to the first lockdown.

Even it that was true, though, it happened many weeks too late, on 23 March, at a point in the epidemic when days, much less weeks, could have make the difference.

Cummings at least apologised for the mistakes Johnson's government made, declaring: "The truth is that senior ministers, officials, advisers like me, fell disastrously short of the standards the public has a right to expect of its government in a crisis like this".

"When the public needed us most, we failed", he said. "And I'd like to say to all the families of those who have died unnecessarily, how sorry I am for the mistakes that were made, and my own mistakes".

What no one is saying though, is that the chain of errors that led to the failure of the official plan in 2020 started in October 2005, under Tony Blair's watch, covering the tenures of two secretaries of state for health, John Reid and Patricia Hewitt, when their main concern was the ban on smoking in public places.

It was then that we saw the start of the fatal confusion, where WHO guidance on SARS-like diseases were conflated with influenza, two very separate diseases, ending up in the government planning for influenza only.

Leading these current select committees, we have the former Conservative cabinet ministers Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt, and it is their task to sort out and understand what went wrong. Somehow, I doubt they will, any more than Cummings has.

Also published on Turbulent Times.






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