Dominic Cummings, double feature or In the room where it happened

By Laura Griffiths

From Spiderman to SAGE, the double select committee that featured Dominic Cummings today has consumed the day’s news.

At the beginning of the session with the Science and Technology Committee, Mr Cummings made what many people wanted to hear – an apology. There was also an acknowledgement that he and others had not responded to the pandemic quick enough and an admittance to a lack of knowledge about technology and health within SAGE.

However, the narrative changed direction multiple times throughout – from being focused on not attending COBRA meetings where nothing but COVID-19 was discussed due to alleged media leaks, that changes made the views wonder at times if we were being deliberately confused.

One of the strangest ideas mentioned was the suggestion by Dominic Cummings that the Prime Minister wanted to be injected with coronavirus live on television by Professor Chris Whitty to prove to the country that the disease was nothing to worry about. If this is accurate, then it was wise to have not created a media frenzy and Big Brother-esque spectacle – especially when you consider the fact that the Prime Minister was later admitted into intensive care.

Another focus was the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock MP. Hancock was hung out to dry a number of times throughout the sessions. From the comments made about ‘herd immunity’ not being part of the government’s plan to regular lies being told to others, it is clear that these two stakeholders within Number 10 Downing Street are a perfect example of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. He even went so far as to say that Matt Hancock should be fired for the mistakes he made, in particular the allegation that Hancock ordered care home residents back into care homes, promising that they would be tested but lied about it.

Cummings did however, push for the public inquiry to take place sooner rather than later, so recall was stronger and the families bereaved by the pandemic can get answers quicker. Perhaps if the delays had not taken place as Cummings has inferred, there would be less of a need for a public inquiry.

Some of Cumming’s evidence seemed confused and contradictory but arguably his testimony was most interesting when he focussed less on trying to settle old scores with his former boss and the Heath Secretary and more on the structural, institutional and cultural failures of government decision making.

Ultimately, what we have seen today from the man who was in the room where it happened was an insight into how government behaves in a disaster. Some of the accusations and comments disclosed to the committee sounded ludicrous. The decisions that appeared to have been taken were a blend of confusion and trepidation – which in hindsight, makes complete sense.  When faced with managing an unknown virus that you have no experience in handling, combined with the levels of uncertainty and contradictory information at times resulted in what appears to be a significant level of miscommunication.

Would anybody else – elected politician, adviser or business leader have been able to handle this public health crisis any differently? We won’t know, but we can learn from the lessons of the past.

One thing we have learnt though – Dominic Cumming’s favourite superhero is your friendly neighbourhood spiderman.