On Wednesday 26 May Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings gave evidence to a UK parliamentary committee investigating the management of the Coronavirus pandemic. Cummings was director of the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign. He was played as a brilliant but moody genius by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film Brexit: the uncivil war. Cummings, not Cumberbatch, describes Johnson’s response to the pandemic as one of chaos, confusion and disastrous misjudgement that resulted in thousands of preventable deaths.
Johnson initially dismissed Covid-19 as a scare story, Cummings said, and to prove it Johnson was willing to be injected with the coronavirus live on TV. Cummings added that, for Johnson, the real danger was an overreaction to the virus that would damage the economy. This is why Johnson initially pursued a policy of ‘herd immunity’, the idea that once enough people in the population had caught and recovered from Covid-19, their protective antibodies would prevent its spread. Despite more than 250 million people in Europe, including Greece, being in lockdown, Johnson kept the UK and its ports and airports open. More than 3.1 million people landed at London’s Heathrow airport alone in March 2020. Johnson eventually agreed to a lockdown on 23 March, a week after being told that ‘herd immunity’ would cause 250,000 deaths.
Cummings emphasised that Johnson had no plan to deal with the virus. A severe shortage of personal protective equipment for health and care workers led to panic buying with billions being wasted on faulty items. Another £10 billion was spent on a test and trace system that did not work. While, tragically, hospitals were advised to send people to care homes without testing them for Covid. Some 3,000 people died before the guidance was changed in mid-April 2020.
According to Cummings, Johnson is not fit to be Prime Minster. He accused Johnson of a ‘casual regard and contempt’ for life by justifying delaying a second lockdown in autumn on the grounds that Covid was, ‘only killing 80 year-olds’, and if he were 80, he would be more worried about the economy. Covid has killed more than 83,000 people aged 80 or over in the UK. Despite the anger of their relatives and friends, Johnson has not denied the accusation. In addition, Cummings confirmed that, when forced into the lockdown at the end of October 2020, following six weeks of growing pressure from his advisers Johnson said, ‘No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’. That, Johnson has denied.
Much of this is already public record and what is not is certainly believable. What matters is whether a failure of government so awful that Cummings himself felt compelled to apologise to all those who had suffered from or lost someone to Covid-19,makes any difference to Johnsons’ fortunes.
The early signs are that the impact of Cummings’ testimony is limited, not least because Cummings himself is not seen as entirely honest. His credibility was severely undermined by his refusal to apologise for breaking lockdown restrictions in April 2020. Johnson spent a lot of political capital to keep Cummings in his job. The split with Johnson came in November 2020. Cummings resigned after what was believed to be a power struggle with the Prime Minister’s then fiancée (now wife, they married on 29 May)and mother of their four-week old son, Carrie Symonds.
In addition, Johnson is still riding high on the success of the Coronavirus vaccine programme. People in the UK are keen to move on and return to normality. Many know that Johnson made mistakes, some serious, but believe he did as well as anyone else could have done in the face of a unique challenge. If needed, Johnson also already has someone to blame. Cummings reserved his harshest criticism for UK health secretary Matt Hancock. Cummings said Hancock should have been fired for lying about contingency plans, misleading everyone about shortages of protective equipment, interfering with the testandtrace system and for failing to test people being sent from hospitalsto care homes for Covid. If he must sacrifice Hancock to save himself, Johnson is unlikely to hesitate.
Johnson remains popular. His Conservative party stands at 39% in the polls compared to the opposition Labour party’s 35%. Johnson also had good local election results in May 2021. Johnson also seems to have survived criticism over who paid for the renovation of the flat, which is the Prime Minister’s residence, above 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister receives £30,000 a year to spend on his living quarters, but the renovation may have cost as much as £200,000 reflecting, according to some, the expensive tastes of Johnson’s new wife. Suspicions are that Conservative party donors ‘quietly’ paid the difference. Johnson has insisted that he covered the costs but has refused to say if any money was initially ‘loaned’ to him.
Although he has survived for now, the mishandling of the Coronavirus may come back to haunt Johnson. Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in the UK, reaching more than 4,000 a day for the first time since March 2021. Cases are expected to rise again in autumn. If, due to the vaccination programme, the increase in cases does not lead to more hospitalisations and deaths, lockdowns will be avoided and life, for most, will continue as normal. If not, the country may not be so forgiving of earlier mistakes. Johnson is also committed to holding a public inquiry, in addition to the current parliamentary one, into the Coronavirus pandemic that left the UK with one of the highest death counts among major economies last year.
Being reminded of the loss of life and wasted resources during the pandemic may again underline Johnson’s rather shambolic way of governing, especially if it coincides with an economic downturn post-Brexit. The UK economy is already experiencing problems over fish and food exports following its departure from the European Union, while political differences over the Brexit agreement are growing between the UK government and devolved governments in Scotland, which is seeking an independence referendum, and in Northern Ireland where violence has already flared.
However, competence matters less than an ability to win elections. Johnson has shown he can win. Being an election winner may make Boris Johnson immune to the political dangers of the Coronavirus. However, just as it is not yet knownfor how long the Coronavirus vaccines can protect us, we do not know how long Johnson’s political immunity will last against the Cummings’ strain of the virus.