Here’s the long story, cut short: Johnson may have argued for herd immunity, as Cummings claims. But Cummings, before his change of mind – documented below – may have argued for it too. It’s entirely possible that he’s lying to make himself look good, and to make Johnson look worse: he can’t make Johnson look bad because we already know he has mishandled the pandemic. And Cummings may have the power to “napalm” Johnson, as he’s threatening to do, but he shouldn’t be allowed to win a return to power on the back of it: the fact that Johnson is a sinner doesn’t make Cummings a saint. They’re both deeply ambitious, ruthless and self-serving men, both capable of lying and both possessed of an unpraiseworthy sense of their own superiority to the common man. In arrogance ambition, venality and vice there isn’t a pin to put between them.
And also, don’t forget to look at the cover story behind what Cummings is saying: a lot of it is his usual “blame the civil service for being monolithic and antediluvian” spiel. He has an agenda there – and he hasn’t forgotten it. Anyway, here we go.
In Dryden’s political satire, “Absalom and Achitophel” the false servant, Zimri, is characterised thus:
“In the first rank of these did Zimri stand / A man so various, that he seemed to be / Not one, but all mankind’s epitome / Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong/ Was every thing by starts, and nothing long / But, in the course of one revolving moon / Was chemist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon / Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking / Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking / Blest madman, who could every hour employ / With something new to wish, or to enjoy / Railing and praising were his usual themes / And both, to shew his judgment, in extremes . . .”
This is Johnson, the man Cummings served, enabled, guided, influenced and supported, arguably subordinating what talent, if any, he possessed of his own to this specious and unlovable rogue who pretends to the office of Prime Minister. But he did not serve or guide him for long.
As we all know, Cummings, the self-styled architect of that jerry-built structure known as “Vote Leave” left Downing Street last November, if not precisely under a cloud, at least swept upon his way by the Boreal blast of Ms Symonds’ disapproval: there was a dispute between the two of them and she won.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the ill-bred cur that slavers over your hand will often turn to bite it – “bon chien chasse de race” as the saying goes, and thus badly bred dogs will inevitably do what badly bred dogs will do: savage the hand that caressed them. Fidelity cannot be expected from those who break faith at Barnard Castle, after all, and Cummings is now biting hard.
(But perhaps the truth of the matter is that this dog only ever answered to one master, and he was not Boris: once Boris had turned him from the No.10 fireside he returned to his former allegiance – which doubtless it will prove he never really left – dog as he is, returning to his vomit – to plot and plan with Gove, who was also turned from the No. 10 fireside by a nipping Frost, to languish in outer darkness “where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” – for his triumphant return. )
Cummings, it is clear, intends to ooze back into power upon the Govian slime-trail. To that end, he has, over the last few days, delivered himself of a series of tweets – his twitter account, one has to say, is as yet unverified, but the Guardian appears to give credence to it, and so, of course, does the Daily Mail, where, one must not forget, Sarah Vine, Gove’s other, but not better half, regularly spews her poison – designed to rewrite history and prove that he, and he alone, saved the day. He, and he alone, nobly argued for a lockdown while Johnson wanted herd immunity. He, and he alone, steering the ship of state away from the reef of disaster, was our guide, our philosopher and our friend. The newspapers are agog with excitement: what will he say? Will he bring Boris down? It seems to be his intention, hence the self-exculpatory – and self-adulatory – poppycock.
Oh, and it is such poppycock.
Let’s look at what Cummings claims: that he himself never advocated for herd immunity, but that Boris Johnson did, and that he mismanaged the situation from the start. He himself, he says now, always maintained that herd immunity was a bad idea. (He was damn quiet about it then, while he was still Johnson’s man, if that’s the truth.)
But did he so maintain? It’s impossible to tell. Whatever claims he makes about what he did or didn’t say – or even whether he was or wasn’t at SAGE meetings, it’s impossible to believe them unless there is written proof: this is a man who claimed to have driven to Barnard Castle – on his wife’s birthday, which was also Easter Sunday – to “test his eyesight” at a time when we were all under strict lockdown. Other politicians who transgressed were reproved, and in some cases stepped down. Cummings was, of course, unrepentant, and triumphally unrepentant at that.
Note that I am not saying here that Johnson didn’t advocate for herd immunity – there is plausible evidence that he did, including, most recently, from Italy, where, speaking to Channel 4’s “Dispatches” program, Italian health minister Pierpaolo Sileri, said that the UK prime minister informed Giuseppe Conte of his plan during a phone call on Monday, March 13. Sileri told the programme: “I remember it perfectly because it was the same weekend that I discovered I had COVID. I spoke with Conte to tell [him] that I’d tested positive. And he told me that he’d spoken with Boris Johnson and that they’d also talked about the situation in Italy. I remember he said, ‘He told me that he wants herd immunity’. I remember that after hanging up, I said to myself that I hope Boris Johnson goes for a lockdown.”’
But did Cummings want it too, despite what he says? Is he trying to rewrite history?
Cummings says now that he did NOT advocate for herd immunity. That’s not what was reported at the time. On March 22nd 2020, the Sunday Times had this to say:
“Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior aide, became convinced that Britain would be better able to resist a lethal second wave of the disease next winter if Whitty’s prediction that 60% to 80% of the population became infected was right and the UK developed “herd immunity”.
At a private engagement at the end of February, Cummings outlined the government’s strategy. Those present say it was “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.”
(My explanation about the dating error in the article is in bold below.)
“At the SAGE meeting on March 12 . . .”
(NB, there was no SAGE meeting on March 12th. At the meeting on March 10th, it was announced “SAGE will revisit its advice on the risks posed by different kinds of social gatherings or meetings and the impacts of restricting them on the epidemic curve at its next meeting (12 March 2020).” There was, however no SAGE meeting on March 12th – or none that is recorded anyway. There was a COBRA meeting on March 12th – chaired by Boris Johnson, who, until 2nd March had been conspicuous by his absence from them – after which Johnson held a press conference and at which he uttered his infamous “people are going to lose loved ones” statement. And there was a SAGE meeting on March 13th, of which more later.)
“ . . . there a moment now dubbed the “Domoscene conversion”, Cummings changed his mind. In this “penny-drop moment”, he realised he had helped set a course for catastrophe. Until this point, the rise in British infections had been below the European average. Now they were above it and on course to emulate Italy, where the picture was bleak. A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.”
By Friday, March 13, Cummings had become the most outspoken advocate of a tough crackdown. “Dominic himself had a conversion,” a senior Tory said. “He’s gone from ‘herd immunity and let the old people die’, to ‘let’s shut down the country and the economy.’”
Cummings had a “meeting of minds” with Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who wanted stronger action to prevent NHS hospitals being swamped. Department of Health officials had impressed on Hancock that the death rate in Wuhan province was 3.4% when the hospitals were overrun and 0.7% elsewhere in China.”
So according to the Sunday Times, Cummings was an advocate of herd immunity until about March 13th – which is, interestingly the date Johnson spoke to the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, and the date of Johnson’s “your loved ones are going to die” speech. After that he changed his mind.
Was Cummings at the SAGE meeting on 13th March? Did he speak there? Did he announce a change of mind there, that he now wants to deny because it is expedient for him to present himself as someone who never wanted herd immunity; presenting himself as the saint to Johnson’s sinner. Did he want herd immunity before that “conversion”?
We know that he had been at the SAGE meetings, and he had not just been an observer. In April 2020, at a point at which unease was growing about Cummings’ meddling in decision making by scientific experts, the Guardian reported:
“The prime minister’s chief political adviser, Dominic Cummings, and a data scientist he worked with on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit are on the secret scientific group advising the government on the coronavirus pandemic, according to a list leaked to the Guardian.
It reveals that both Cummings and Ben Warner were among 23 attendees present at a crucial convening of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on 23 March, the day Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown in a televised address.
Multiple attendees of Sage told the Guardian that both Cummings and Warner had been taking part in meetings of the group as far back as February. The inclusion of Downing Street advisers on Sage will raise questions about the independence of its scientific advice.”
There is no publicly available FULL list of attendees for the SAGE meetings. The names of junior staff are redacted as a matter of course, but there are also disclaimers at the end of each set of minutes which say, for example “1 scientific expert, 8 observers and government officials and 17 Secretariat members redacted” or “participants who were Observers and Government Officials were not consistently recorded, therefore this may not be a complete list.” However, since the names of Ben Warner, and on one occasion, his brother Mark, both protégés of Cummings’ are often not redacted, it seems fair to posit that if Warner was there, Cummings was there also.
For the ninth and tenth and eleventh SAGE meetings of the year, on the 20th, 25th and 27th February, Ben Warner was there. Cummings was not listed, but there were several participants who were not listed by name, so he could have been. Neither Warner nor Cummings were listed for the twelfth SAGE meeting on the 3rd of March.
The thirteenth SAGE meeting on the 5th of March is the only one that has Cummings listed. He is listed as a SAGE participant, not as a government observer.
On the fourteenth SAGE meeting on the 10th of March, only Ben Warner was listed as there, but the minutes state that “not all attendees are listed,” and there are three redactions in the list of “scientific attendees/SAGE participants”. This is the meeting at which it was stated that the next meeting would be the 12th of March (which possibly led to the Sunday Times error). Instead, there was a COBRA meeting on the 12th, and the next SAGE meeting, which is the one at which Cummings is said to have changed his mind, was the following day, on the 13th. There is a redaction in the list of attendees, in the position that Cummings’ name stood in the March 5th list of attendees – the only one in which he was openly listed. Ben Warner was there.
At that meeting on the 13th March, the words “herd immunity” aren’t mentioned in the minutes. But this is:
“Owing to a 5-7 day lag in data provision for modelling, SAGE now believes there are more cases in the UK than SAGE previously expected at this point, and we may therefore be further ahead on the epidemic curve, but the UK remains on broadly the same epidemic trajectory and time to peak.
The science suggests that household isolation and social distancing of the elderly and vulnerable should be implemented soon, provided they can be done well and equitably .Individuals who may want to distance themselves should be advised how to do so. SAGE is considering further social distancing interventions –that may best be applied intermittently, nationally or regionally, and potentially more than once –to reduce demand below NHS capacity to respond.”
That doesn’t sound like anyone is pushing hard for a lockdown – as Cummings insisted that he was – although he was only insisting that he had been AFTER the March 22nd Sunday Times article accusing him of wanting to go for herd immunity was published. (And from the point at which the Sunday Times article was published, it’s possible to see a constant drip-feed of pro-Cummings propaganda trickling in from “sources” and on one occasion from Gove – refuting the “Cummings wants herd immunity” story.)
The minutes continue:
“SAGE was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak. SAGE advises that it is a near certainty that countries such as China, where heavy suppression is underway, will experience a second peak once measures are relaxed.”
Now that does sound like herd immunity. Cummings could have been arguing for or against, but the minutes don’t tell us. And here’s the other thing. While Cummings, with perfect 20/20 hindsight (presumably tested at Barnard Castle) is now arguing that he was against herd immunity from the start, that he argued against it in SAGE meetings, and that it was the government – Johnson, in particular – who wanted it, not him, we only have Cummings’ word for that. The minutes add:
“Citizens should be treated as rational actors, capable of taking decisions for themselves and managing personal risk. There is some evidence that people find quarantining harder to comply with the longer it goes on. The evidence is not strong but the effect is intuitive. There is no comparable evidence for social distancing measures, but experience suggests it is harder to comply with a challenging behaviour over a long period than over a short period. There is no strong evidence for public compliance rates changing during a major emergency. There is, however, a link between public anxiety and protective behavioural change.”
(That’s the “terrify the populace into submission” routine right there. And compliance fatigue was frequently cited as a reason for not bringing in lockdown earlier: seems funny now. Almost. Perhaps. Maybe “ironic” is the word I am looking for.) And then:
“Difficulty maintaining behaviours should not be treated as a reason for not communicating with the public about the efficacy of the behaviours and should not be taken as a reason to delay implementation where that is indicated epidemiologically. Where the UK does not adopt measures seen in other countries, Government should clearly explain its reasoning. SAGE recognised that taking individual measures will be more feasible for those with greater personal resources–and that some social distancing is happening in the UK without HMG directing citizens to do so.”
That sounds like “delaying implementation” was definitely on the cards. It also makes it clear that the UK was not planning on following the measure adopted by other countries. So do we believe Cummings? He was against herd immunity and pro-lockdown: Johnson wanted it?
Some, the Johnsonites, don’t. People who criticised Cummings for his behaviour over Barnard Castle are now getting flak on social media and in the mainstream press because they are giving him credence over what he is saying about Johnson (especially amid reports that his testimony tomorrow will “napalm” Johnson).
How can you believe him about Johnson, their opponents, and Johnson’s groupies argue? Surely this is just political revenge porn. You didn’t believe him about Barnard Castle? But if he’s being truthful about Johnson, then surely he was truthful about Barnard Castle. Shouldn’t you rather apply the common law test of “falsum in uno, falsus in omnibus”: the credibility of a witness is impaired if they can be proved to have lied. If Cummings was false in one thing, it could be argued that he is false in all. So on that count, if he lied about Barnard Castle then, he’s lying about Johnson now.
But this is a ridiculously simplistic point of view. It is perfectly possible for a man to lie about one thing and be truthful about another, although given his tendency to rewrite his blog to fit in with his version of events, truth, for Cummings, appears to be what he can persuade other people to believe.
It’s also perfectly possible for him to have initially been in favour of herd immunity – it would fit in with his known views on eugenics, and his short-lived hiring of the eugenicist and racist Andrew Sabisky as one of his crew of “weirdos and misfits” last year – and then later to have changed his mind when confronted with the evidence of the damage it would cause: the “Domoscene conversion” mentioned in the Sunday Times.
The difficulty for Cummings now of course, is that if anyone was all powerful with Johnson early last year it was he; he could do no wrong, as Barnard Castle proved. If herd immunity was a path to destruction – and it was – and if both of them, Cummings leading and Johnson following – as they were – had been following it, they would both be implicated. And after the Sunday Times article on March 22nd last year, Downing Street was quick to defend its favourite, saying it was “highly defamatory” to suggest that he was relaxed about letting older people die in order to minimise the economic fallout of coronavirus.
So perhaps there was a pact of mutual offence and defence at that point, with both of them realising that they would have to hang together or they’d hang separately, as the deaths mounted and the NHS struggled valiantly against them and criticism grew louder and louder.
But now it’s different. Cummings is the jilted spouse now. He’s about to dish the dirt, wash the dirty linen in public, and expose the secrets of the political marriage bed. He’s the insurrectionist with the bomb, and that bomb could destroy Johnson because if anyone is in a position to know what Johnson was doing, Cummings is. Just as he knows who was the person influencing Johnson in February and March 2020 . . .
The Times has an article today – in advance of tomorrow’s expected revelations – which has a “government source” – funny, that used to be Cummings’ rôle – accusing the ex-SPAD of attempting to “neutralise” criticism of his trip to Barnard Castle during the first lockdown and highlighting exactly the claims he has been at pains to deny, that he initially supported a policy of herd immunity, maintaining that he is now “trying to reframe the narrative, because he wants his whole philosophy to be framed as the guy who’s pro-restrictions, not the rule breaker.”
The same source has apparently said that of the fact that Cummings has described the government’s contingency planning for virus epidemics as “part disaster, part non-existent” and criticised the fact that it considered only the threat of flu. “It’s revisionism. He’s going round saying ‘if only competent people were in charge’. This was a guy with unrivalled authority,” the source said. “You can either be an all-powerful special adviser or a busted flush with no powers and influence. You can’t be both. He’s a rank hypocrite.
Cummings’ revisionism, according to the Times’ source, included saying that advisers screamed at Johnson in March last year that his coronavirus strategy would “kill at least 250,000 and destroy the NHS” but that there was no plan for lockdown, adding on Twitter that the civil service had given “no thought at all” to the consequences of wider NHS care if a quarter of a million people were left to die of Covid-19 and insisting that as late as March 13 there was “neither an intention to lockdown nor . . . any official plan for doing so”, leading to panic over a weekend as the government changed its mind.
Cummings’ tweet stream, apart from its self-congratulatory onanism focuses quite heavily on the civil service which he blames for almost everything: the man is obsessed with getting rid of an institution which monolithic and antediluvian as it is, is the country’s only defence against people such as – Cummings and his assorted band of weirdos and misfits. The collection of tweets also praises some of his ex-weirdos and misfits to the skies, implying that had they ben in charge, things would have been very different. It’s almost as if his narrative now is that he was the misunderstood genius who could have saved us all, had he not been prevented from doing so by the inertia (for which, thank whatever Deity there be) of Whitehall and the incompetence of Westminster.
One doubts that his misfits and weirdos could, somehow. Cummings has as a recommendation on his blogroll, one Eliezer Yukodsky, a high-school dropout with no computer programming experience, who has intended for some years now (if people give him enough money) to write an artificial intelligence that will eventually become God and fix all our problems. Yukodsky has also perpetrated a fanfic promulgating his ideas, using as a vehicle a certain young wizard with green eyes, a lightning scar, and a tendency to high heroics. Yes, I am talking about Harry Potter. Now there is nothing wrong with a good piece of transformational writing – let’s face it: Virgil’s Aeneid is a rip-off of Homer, and Dante’s Inferno pays homage to Virgil – and in lighter moments I have been known to perpetrate them myself. But trust me, “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” is one of the most turgid and unappealing pieces of work I have ever had the misfortune to come across, and Yukodsky’s blatantly self-insert hero is emetic in the extreme. Even recommending this self styled genius shows Cummings’ lack of rationality . . . but perhaps like calls to like, and one self-styled genius recognises another.
So where does that leave us? Cummings was in power during February and March last year, while the government swithered between lockdown and herd immunity. We know Cummings favours a eugenicist approach: he has made no secret of the fact. Johnson delayed lockdown. Did he delay it on Cummings’ orders? Did Cummings then change his mind – possibly because he thought excess deaths might bring down his patron. (You’d think, wouldn’t you, but no; Johnson is still riding high on the hog.) Did Johnson defend Cummings against the accusation that he had favoured herd immunity, because he knew he’d fall if Cummings fell?
Johnson is undoubtedly at fault for the deaths from Covid. If he assented to Cummings’ suggestions of herd immunity – if Cummings made such suggestions – he was wrong to do so. If he delayed lockdown because Cummings suggested it, he was wrong to do so. If Cummings persuaded Johnson to delay lockdown, then he is responsible for the deaths too. He was wrong to do so. He cannot be allowed, if he brings Johnson down, to regain power on the strength of changing his mind: he had power, he had unelected power, and he used it, if he did support herd immunity, to cause the deaths of the weakest and most vulnerable. He was wrong to do so.
Cummings has been described as a “career psychopath.” Johnson is a malignant narcissist. They both need to burn in the fires of their own making. Johnson must go – but Cummings must not be allowed back as a reward for bringing down the man whose narcissism he enabled. That’s clearly what he wants. He must not get it. We need that enquiry now – not in a year’s time, and it must be independent. Because when two liars argue, there is never any question about which one of them might be telling the truth. The only question is which one of them is telling the bigger lie.
(The very latest is that Cummings is claiming that Johnson had “no plan to protect vulnerable people from Covid.” But who was making Johnson’s plans?)