Cummings’ testimony: a vivid portrait of failure – Guardian Editorial

A self-serving witness can still give evidence that is both damning and true.

www.theguardian.com

A year ago, Dominic Cummings gave a press conference from the garden of 10 Downing Street to explain why he, as the prime minister’s most powerful adviser, should be allowed to breach lockdown rules when ordinary citizens were confined to their homes. His explanation, involving the claim to have tested his eyesight by driving with his family in the car, was famously improbable.

That episode damages Mr Cummings’ credibility as a witness before a committee of MPs seeking to learn lessons from the government’s handling of the pandemic. No one who watched Wednesday’s testimony was left doubting that he intended to settle scores and divert blame away from himself. He apologised for mistakes that were made, but as a prelude to self-exculpation, even over that family trip to County Durham. His regret was not having acted sooner to contradict a prevailing government view last March that the virus should be allowed to run through the population, generating natural immunity. He had been right all along, and should have forced the prime minister to act, he said. Well he would, wouldn’t he, as Mandy Rice-Davies might have observed.

A self-serving motive does not render the whole account invalid. Much of it is corroborated by other sources and the evidence of what happened to the country. Even when it was clear that Britain was heading quickly towards catastrophe, the prime minister was either unwilling or psychologically unable to take the necessary action.

As the crisis unfolded, this fundamental flaw in Boris Johnson’s character resurfaced as the cause of confusion, delay and, by extension, unnecessary death. Mr Cummings reports that the prime minister likes “chaos” as a mode of government because it forces others to await his arbitration, thereby bolstering his power. That is consistent with other accounts of Mr Johnson’s modus operandi: maintaining a deliberately weak cabinet, contradicting himself, making false public statements, making policy commitments one day and U-turning the next, procrastinating while the options narrow. That temperamental inadequacy would be problematic under normal circumstances. During a pandemic, it has proved lethal.

Some of the worst failings of government were, no doubt, compounded by mediocrity and a lack of agility throughout Whitehall. Mr Cummings is right to raise the alarm about a civil contingencies apparatus that existed to cope with rare emergencies and failed to perform that one basic function when required. The threat of a pandemic had been known for years, yet the government found itself making up the plan as it went along.

For all the systemic unreadiness and alleged dishonesty of cabinet ministers, the central problem – the broken piece in the machine that escalated every hazard into a disaster – was the man whose job it was to lead. No country went into the pandemic fully prepared. All had to improvise responses and learn from evidence as it emerged. Mr Johnson failed to do that, not just at the start, but throughout last year.

Britain has suffered one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world not only because its organs of state were unready, but because its prime minister was unfit. Mr Cummings is not the most reliable narrator of events in which he played a crucial role. Yet the picture he paints of a prime minister lacking the judgment and character to navigate the crisis tallies with a Downing Street spectacle that the country witnessed last year, lurching from panic to complacency and back again – “a shopping trolley smashing between aisles.” Testimony from a man at the very heart of that disaster might well be skewed by vendetta, but it also contains frighteningly plausible insight into the way Britain is governed. The full picture will emerge only in time, but some judgments are already available based on known facts. “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die,” Mr Cummings said. Tragically, it was the truth.

Cummings brought to life what many already knew about Johnson’s failures

Late-night battles, expletive-ridden rants, Jaws references and Spiderman memes – the dramatic details of Dominic Cummings’ seven-hour testimony captivated Westminster on Wednesday.

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com

But strip away all the chaos and colour, and the bleak picture left behind was of a prime minister utterly unsuited to the historic and unprecedented task he was handed.

Of course, Cummings is a deeply unreliable witness: self-interested, embittered about his departure from Downing Street and inconsistent – to put it generously – about his lockdown-busting trip to Durham.

At times he appeared to be pursuing something close to a vendetta against the health secretary, Matt Hancock, whom he claimed to have repeatedly urged the prime minister to sack, and whom he accused of a litany of lies and other failures.

Yet the broad thrust of his attack on Boris Johnson had the ring of plausibility, mainly because it chimed so squarely with much of what was already publicly known, from the botched early response to the pandemic to Johnson’s refusal to order a September lockdown.

On Wednesday Cummings put that narrative on the record and brought it alive, with added layers of excruciating detail.

He described the prime minister’s dogged refusal to listen to scientific advice or learn the lessons of the March lockdown. He told of Johnson’s repeated references to “the mayor from Jaws” and his tendency to disappear off on holiday or become distracted at critical junctures.

The prime minister was “about a thousand times too obsessed with the media” and “changes his mind 10 times a day, and then calls up the media and contradicts his own policy, day after day after day”, Cummings said.

Instead of a smooth-running machine, with the prime minister at the centre, Cummings claimed the cabinet was barely involved in key decisions, and went as far as saying that Johnson deliberately embraced political disorder.

Cummings said Johnson told him last summer, when the senior aide was threatening to resign, that “chaos isn’t that bad: it means people have to look to me to see who is in charge”.

Perhaps most damning, though, was Cummings’ account of the autumn, when many scientific experts were calling for a circuit-breaker to prevent the virus running out of control after schools reopened.

Unlike in March, when data was hard to come by and the pandemic was extremely novel, there was by now ample information as well as the hard-won experience gained from the spring lockdown.

Cummings claimed the prime minister continued to insist, in the face of all the evidence, not only that another lockdown was not necessary but that the first one had been the wrong move, which he was somehow gulled into.

“There’s this great misunderstanding people have that because it [Covid] nearly killed him, therefore he must have taken it seriously,” Cummings said in a reference to the prime minister’s brush with death in March 2020. “But in fact, after the first lockdown, he was cross with me and others with what he regarded as basically pushing him into the first lockdown. His argument after that was: ‘I should have been the mayor of Jaws and kept the beaches open.’”

Of course, Johnson did eventually order that second lockdown, at the end of October and several weeks later than advised. By this time, Cummings claimed, Johnson was so infuriated that he said he would rather see “bodies pile up” than implement a third lockdown – corroborating a report that the PM has denied.

And, Cummings argued, the bodies did pile up across a year of poor decision-making. The official UK Covid death toll now stands at more than 127,000.

Being prime minister doesn’t just mean the Downing Street address and the cheering crowds: it carries the responsibility of life-and-death choices freighted with historical significance. That’s the reason candidates for the job are often asked: “Would you press the nuclear button?”

Once they disappear inside the big black door of No 10, the nation has no choice but to rely on their judgment as they make those life-and-death decisions. On Wednesday it was hard to listen to the man Johnson chose as his closest adviser and conclude that he made them well.

Matt Hancock cost lives with lies about care home Covid tests, Dominic Cummings claims

Matt Hancock repeatedly lied during the pandemic and was guilty of “criminal, disgraceful behaviour” that cost lives, Dominic Cummings claimed yesterday.

(See also  COVID-19: Matt Hancock fighting for his political life after Dominic Cummings’s brutal demolition job – Owl)

Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor | Steven Swinford, Political Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

The prime minister’s former chief adviser said the health secretary should have been sacked for at least 20 reasons.

The most serious charge laid against him by Cummings is that infection spread “like wildfire” in care homes because he falsely claimed that patients were being tested for coronavirus before being discharged from hospital.

Cummings also claimed that the health secretary repeatedly misled Boris Johnson and ministers and that the cabinet secretary “lost confidence” after finding Hancock was lying.

Sources sympathetic to Hancock dismissed Cummings as a “psychopath” and a “complete snake” who had never challenged the health secretary directly about his claims.

Today the health secretary is planning to make an announcement about plans for Covid-19 at a Downing Street news conference in an attempt to show he is too busy fighting the pandemic to do battle with Cummings.

At the health select committee yesterday, Cummings said that at points he called for the health secretary to be sacked almost every day.

A government spokesman said: “We absolutely reject Mr Cummings’s claims about the health secretary”, adding that Hancock had “worked incredibly hard in unprecedented circumstances to protect the NHS and save lives”.

No 10 said Johnson had confidence in Hancock, although it did not deny Cummings’s claim that the prime minister had considered sacking him.

Cummings accused Hancock of performing “disastrously below the standards the public would expect”.

He said: “I think the secretary of state for health should’ve been fired for at least 15, 20 things, including lying to everybody on multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly.”

Cummings claimed that Hancock had attempted to blame Sir Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, for problems with the procurement of PPE. He said he had asked Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, to investigate the claims and he concluded that they were “completely untrue”. Cummings said that Sedwill then told the prime minister that he had “lost confidence” in Hancock’s honesty and advised that he should be sacked.

“I said repeatedly to the prime minister that he should be fired, so did the cabinet secretary, so did many other senior people,” Cummings said.

An estimated 35,000 care home residents died during the first wave. Cummings dismissed ministers’ claims to have “thrown a protective ring” around social care as “complete nonsense”.

As the NHS prepared for the pandemic in March, thousands of elderly people were discharged to care homes to free up beds. Some homes refused to accept patients who had not been tested for coronavirus but Department of Health guidance on April 2 insisted that tests were not required.

Cummings said yesterday: “Hancock told us in the cabinet room that people were going to be tested before they went back to care homes. What the hell happened?” He said that Downing Street did not understand until April that “many, many people who should have been tested were not tested, and then went to care homes and then infected people, and then it’s spread like wildfire inside the care homes”.

On April 15 fresh guidance stipulated people should be tested before admission to care homes. “All the government rhetoric of ‘we put a shield around care homes’ and blah blah, was complete nonsense — quite the opposite of putting a shield around them, we sent people with Covid back to the care homes,” Cummings said.

While last year Hancock was credited for scaling up testing to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, Cummings argued this was an “incredibly stupid” stunt. He said that the health secretary had been “interfering with the building of the test-and-trace system, because he’s telling everybody what to do to maximise his chances of hitting his stupid target by the end of the month”.

Cummings said: “He should have been fired for that thing alone: it meant that the whole of April was hugely disrupted by different parts of Whitehall fundamentally trying to operate in different ways, completely because Hancock wanted to be able to go on TV and say, look at me, my 100k targets. It was criminal, disgraceful behaviour that caused serious harm.”

He also accused the health secretary of misleading statements about how the NHS had coped. In the summer he said that everybody who needed treatment got the treatment that they required,” Cummings said. “He knew that that was a lie because he had been briefed by the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer himself about the first peak, and we were told explicitly people did not get the treatment they deserved, many people were left to die in horrific circumstances.”

Last night Hancock said: “I haven’t seen this performance today in full, and instead I’ve been dealing with getting the vaccination rollout going, especially to over-30s, and saving lives. I’ll be giving a statement to the House of Commons tomorrow.”

“It is my hope the Government can root-out the cause of illegal deforestation”

Neil Parish www.devonlive.com

NEIL PARISH IS THE CONSERVATIVE MP FOR TIVERTON AND HONITON

As I write this, the Environment Bill is about to return for its remaining stages in the Commons. This landmark piece of legislation sets ambitious targets for protecting and revitalising our environment, both here in the UK and internationally. The Bill also presents a prime opportunity for the UK to tackle one of the key drivers of climate change: deforestation.

In 2020 alone, over 11,000 square kilometres of the Amazon were lost to deforestation, the highest in 12 years. That is nearly twice the size of Devon destroyed in a year. Illegal deforestation not only destroys precious rainforests, which act as vital carbon sinks and biodiversity hubs, but dismantles the lands and livelihoods of local communities and indigenous peoples.

The Government has taken bold steps to halt deforestation, including banning the use of certain materials associated with illegal deforestation and demanding larger companies carry out proper due diligence within their supply chains, ensuring they are not linked to illegal forest destruction. While commendable, I believe these measures should be strengthened, and I have tabled amendments to the Bill to do just that.

We must go further to ensure the Bill does not exclude the finance sector, who are in many cases bankrolling deforestation. Global Witness’s Money to Burn report found UK financial institutions, including many well-known high street banks, had invested £5 billion between 2013-2019 in companies that were found to have illegally deforested land. UK pension pots may well be being used to indirectly fund illegal deforestation.

My first amendment aims to cut this funding stream by barring lenders from providing financial services to enterprises that illegally deforest land. Banks, investment firms and pension trusts cannot be allowed to profit at the expense of irreplaceable rainforests and ecosystems.

We must also ensure the lands of indigenous communities are protected. Research has shown more people than ever were killed in 2019 for defending their homes against illegal land clearance. That is why I have tabled a further amendment aimed at ensuring the free, prior, and informed consent of affected indigenous peoples has been obtained, before businesses can fund enterprises which harvest materials from rainforests.

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference and the G7 summit fast approaching, the UK must show global leadership by bolstering our efforts against the degradation of unique forests, while ensuring the lands of indigenous peoples are properly protected. By adopting my amendments, it is my hope the Government can root-out the cause of illegal deforestation and safeguard our environment for generations to come.

Value of UK house sales forecast to leap 46% this year as boom continues

The total value of homes sold in the UK is expected to reach £461bn this year, a jump of 46% on 2020, indicating the current housing market boom is likely to continue, according to a new prediction.

Rupert Jones www.theguardian.com

The property website Zoopla said its projections indicated the property market in 2021 was on course to be the busiest for 14 years.

Its figures come on the back of data showing that the sector has defied expectations over the past year to notch up double-digit price growth.

Last week the Office for National Statistics said average UK house prices in March had increased by 10.2% in a year – the highest annual growth rate since August 2007, before the financial crisis hit.

The stronger-than-expected growth has been fuelled by a combination of factors, including the stamp duty holiday introduced last summer, new government guarantees for mortgages, and the “race for space” that has seen many would-be homebuyers prioritise properties with bigger gardens and more room for working from home.

Zoopla – which claims its figures are based on the largest underlying data sample of any UK house price index – said its projections indicated that home sales would reach 1.52m in 2021 – a rise of 45% on 2020. If that were to happen, it would mark the highest level of activity since 2007 and mean that this year was one of the top 10 busiest years since 1959.

Meanwhile, the value of homes sold in 2021 is expected to reach £461bn, said the website. This would represent a rise of 46%, or £145bn in monetary terms, on 2020, when the figure stood at £316bn. It would amount to a jump of 68% compared with 2019.

Demand for family houses is exerting upward pressure on prices, and it is locations away from London and the south-east where buyer interest continues to be strongest.

Zoopla said the “hottest” housing markets – in terms of both price growth and the time taken to secure a sale – were Wales, Yorkshire and the Humber, and north-west England.

In the more central parts of London, by contrast, homes are taking nearly two months to sell, which is two weeks longer than the 2017-19 average, while inner London prices are almost unchanged on a year ago.

Average prices are falling in the City of London (down 2.5% year-on-year), Kensington and Chelsea (down 1.7%), Westminster (down 2.2%), and Hammersmith and Fulham (down 1.4%). These areas have been particularly affected by the global shutdown of international business and leisure travel due to the pandemic, said Zoopla.

Former Labour-run Durham County Council to be run by party alliance

An agreement has been reached by non-Labour councillors to run Durham County Council for the first time in a century.

BBC News www.bbc.co.uk 

The alliance, made up of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, independents and a Green, plans to take over at the council’s annual meeting on Wednesday.

Labour was the largest party following the local elections, with 53 of 126 councillors, but lost overall control.

It said it was disappointed to have been excluded from alliance talks.

However, it added that it remained committed to working with other parties.

Leadership of the council will rotate between the partnership, with cabinet positions shared out.

‘Painful lesson’

Liberal Democrat Amanda Hopgood is due to take charge initially.

A partnership spokesperson said: “We recognise that, subject to a successful annual meeting, this will be a historic moment for Durham County Council.

“Not only will the council be run by a non-Labour administration for the first time, it will also have its first ever female leader.

“In building to this moment, the partners have demonstrated what can be achieved by focusing on the big picture and the best outcome for communities across the county.”

Councillor Carl Marshall, leader of Durham Labour Group, said: “Labour’s first and only priority at this moment in time is to play our part in creating a council that delivers for the people and businesses.

“To be excluded from talks between other political groups is not only disappointing, but it threatens to destabilise the significant progress we have made in laying the groundwork for 30,000 new jobs across Durham.

“Labour heard what people had to say in the May elections. It was a painful lesson, but one we accept and learn from.”