The British public has set a very low bar for this government. A decade of brutal austerity policies that led to an estimated death toll of over 120,000 people (a well-known example of which being the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire) was not enough to stop the Conservative Party winning their fourth general election in a row back in December. Neither was Boris Johnson stealing a reporter’s phone on live national television in order to avoid looking at an image of a child forced to sleep on a hospital floor, having the police called to his flat over concerns for the safety of his partner, or the party pretending on Twitter to be an independent fact-checking service in the run-up to the election.
The government relies on the continued lowering of this bar – and recently has even taken to lowering it itself. Think back to the brief that the furlough scheme was to be scrapped entirely, and then the partial U-turn of extending it by only a couple of months. This is becoming a common tactic: set public expectations to zero so that any change in the right direction – no matter how small – is treated as an act of heroic compassion.
Every time this bar is lowered even further, Johnson and his cronies continue to bend and contort themselves underneath it like limbo dancers. The coronavirus pandemic has seen no shortage of these instances, from the government’s initial “herd immunity” policy (a soon-abandoned social experiment which essentially permitted hundreds of thousands of deaths as acceptable collateral for a strategy with little to no scientific backing or basis in reality), to Johnson’s brag of “shaking hands” with coronavirus patients (surprise, surprise, he caught the virus, and surprise surprise, hordes of media pundits and online brown-nosers bent over backwards in displays of fawning sympathy).
The latest in this series of new records for bare-faced corruption came on Sunday evening during No. 10’s daily press briefing, where Johnson opted to back his closest adviser Dominic Cummings in his latest scandal. The Daily Mirror had, the day before, broken the story that Cummings had travelled two hundred and sixty miles from London to Durham between the 27th and 31st March – a week after the government had announced and enforced a lockdown that required us all to “stay at home” and to definitely not, under any circumstances, visit the homes of friends, family members, and loved ones that we do not currently live with (one of the few messages that the government has been clear and unambiguous on). Not only had Cummings broken the lockdown rules he himself had a hand in writing – he and his wife, journalist Mary Wakefield, had done this while displaying severe and active symptoms of the virus.
After the now-predictable defence of Cummings by senior government officials (Downing Street stated that “At no stage was he [Cummings] or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported”, a claim disputed by Durham Police), the Mirror then dropped another bombshell: Cummings had returned to Durham a second time on the 12th April and been spotted at Barnard Castle, thirty miles from his parents’ house. This made Cummings’ claim that the trip had been to leave his young son in the care of his family in Durham (instead of, for example, his wife’s family who live in London) rather than himself and his equally ill wife (with whom the child spent four hours confined inside a car with during the drive) seem questionable at best.
Despite this damning evidence, the man running the country was promptly and predictably defended by the Prime Minister. Johnson stated to the public in his briefing that he had just taken part in “extensive” discussions with Cummings and used his famed parenting skills to deduce that his adviser had simply “followed the instincts of every father … and I do not mark him down for that”. Evidently, every other parent following the government’s rules has displayed profound lack of care for their children, if you are to take Johnson’s assertion to its logical conclusion.
Travelling long distances to abandon your child presumably being something the PM has extensive experience in, he stated that “looking at the very severe childcare difficulties that presented themselves to Dominic Cummings and his family, I think that what they did was totally understandable”, and that they had “no alternative”. Cummings stated in his own press conference the day after Johnson’s that their usual childcare options in London were “unavailable”, but was unable to explain this further.
Although Cummings is arguably one of the most powerful people in the country, I’ll admit that I can believe that he is so lacking in human relationships that the closest person willing to do him a personal favour was almost three hundred miles away. However, advice on these situations had already been given by deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harris on the event of sick parents needing childcare: “…if the individuals do not have access to care support, formal care support or access to family, they will be able to work through their local authority hubs.”
“In every respect, he has acted responsibly, legally and with integrity,” Johnson said, because as it now turns out, words mean nothing any more. Despite calls for Cummings’ resignation from media pundits, the public, and even some Tory MPs, Johnson opted to stick up for his buddy by outright lying to the entire country – I can only wonder what dirt Cummings has on good old Boris.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described the PM’s decision as “an insult to sacrifices made by the British people”, and said that the briefing had “undermined confidence in his own public health message at this crucial time … the public will be forgiven for thinking there is one rule for the prime minister’s closest adviser and another for the British people”.
Indeed, with families legally prohibited by the government from attending the funerals of their own parents, spouses, and children, Johnson’s decision to let Cummings off the hook is a Covid-carrying spit in the faces of everyone who has sacrificed their careers, social lives, wellbeing, and human contact in attempt to protect the safety of others. While young and otherwise healthy people make the choice to die alone to protect their loved ones, the ruling classes continue to do as they please, whatever the consequences.
I am not surprised that Dominic Cummings, a key proponent of the initial “herd immunity” policy, with plausible accusations of eugenicist beliefs, acted selfishly, recklessly, and without a care for the public. I am not even surprised that Boris Johnson defended him – after all, my expectations of this government have been close to zero for a long time. I will not be surprised if this is swept under the rug and forgotten about.
The government’s blatant bending of the truth is not just about Cummings and his position in government – it affects the safety of all of us. This deliberate dishonesty and refusal of accountability fundamentally weakens our democracy and degrades the entire political system. Parliamentary politics aside, the public health implications are highly worrying – with Cummings’ claim that he “behaved responsibly and legally” being backed up by our government, the importance of social distancing during the pandemic is thrown into doubt among the public at a time when it is urgent to see it through to the end to avoid a devastating second spike in deaths.
Professor Stephen Reicher, who sits on the government’s Sage committee, said that Johnson’s decision to deny Cummings’ wrongdoing has “trashed all the advice we have given on how to build trust and secure adherence to [lockdown] measures”.
We have already lowered the bar to the point where the highest death toll in Europe is seen as acceptable to many, and we cannot afford to lower it any further. It is time for the British public – most of whom have made huge sacrifices to protect others – to raise the bar and demand the same of our government.