“THE TRUTH is that senior ministers, senior officials, senior advisers like me fell disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect of its Government in a crisis like this.
“When the public needed us most, the Government failed.
“I would like to say to all the families of those who died unnecessarily how sorry I am for themistakes that were made and for my own mistakes at that.”
Dominic Cummings’ opening statement to the Covid-19: Lessons Learned Committee of the House of Commons is an attention-grabbing one.
The rest of his evidence was no less damning of Westminster’s response in the early days of the pandemic.
It revealed a government in which discussions at Cobra meetings, supposedly the most secure and confidential of briefings, were routinely leaked to the media. It showed a PM who went away on holiday as the crisis broke. The Government failed to follow the logic of the science presented to it and took weeks to understand the pandemic’s capacity to overwhelm the NHS.
And – as Mr Cummings said – ‘unbelievably’ we have a government whose response to the crisis at a critical time was put on the back burner to deal with a complaint by the PM’s fiancé about a disobliging story about her dog.
CUMMINGS HAS PAPER TRAIL
Suppose Mr Cummings, like so many others, made his assertion without a paper trail. In that case, his remarks could be interpreted as so much self-serving nonsense and a study in revenge. However, he has the paperwork, the email trail, the journal entries, the secret WhatsApp chats to back up his account.
His story got extra heft by his clear expression of regret that he had not obtained an independent view of the Government’s data earlier. When he did deliver data to those outside Downing Street, the extent of the crisis became apparent.
He made it clear the Government could have got better insight sooner and taken steps towards lockdown six weeks before it did.
The Prime Minister maintained ‘this new swine-flu thing’ was less of a risk than economic damage from overreaction throughout February, even as infections and deaths escalated.
However, the data was wrong. According to Mr Cummings, had the models been checked against live data from Intensive Care Units concerning Covid infections, it would’ve been evident the models presented to the Government and upon which it based its decisions were totally flawed.
In a withering assessment, Dominic Cummings said the more people criticised the plan, or lack of one, the more people on the inside believed their critics lacked knowledge.
If there’d been proper scrutiny and interrogation of what Ministers were being told, “we would have figured out at least six weeks earlier that there was an alternative plan”.
The original plan, he said, was “complete garbage”.
More than that, the Department of Health’s ‘plan’ amounted to no more than a press release.
The Department of Health was ’a smoking ruin’, he claimed. There was no plan for shielding, support, emergency procurement. The Department of Health failed to appreciate the size of the crisis and stuck to its normal procurement channels until it was almost out of PPE. The Department of Health refused to buy ventilators because their price had risen.
He suggested a proposal – seriously advanced for consideration – that people hold the equivalent of ‘chickenpox parties’ was met with disbelief by scientists who had to point out that chickenpox was not killing hundreds of thousand people worldwide.
HANCOCK BRANDED A LIAR
Dominic Cummings turned personal fire onto Matt Hancock, who remains the Secretary of State for Health.
He accused Mr Hancock of lying and that the Health Secretary’s conduct merited his instant dismissal.
He had earlier mentioned the Health Secretary’s denial that the Government pursued a herd immunity policy that formed a vital element of the Government’s then-approach.
Dominic Cummings said Matt Hancock “for lying to everybody in multiple occasions in meeting after meeting in the cabinet room and publicly”.
Crucially, Mr Cummings said the Cabinet Secretary (Mark Sedwill, the UK’s most senior civil servant) told him and the Prime Minister that he did not trust Matt Hancock to be truthful. He had notes of the meeting in which that remark was made.
Mark Sedwill, Mr Cummings claimed, told Boris Johnson that the cabinet system was not set up to deal with a minister like Matt Hancock, who – he alleged Mr Sedwill said – repeatedly lied in meetings.
He alleged Mr Hancock deliberately delayed implementing a proper track and trace system to meet an arbitrary testing target.
JOHNSON DUCKS THE QUESTIONS
As the Committee took a break, Prime Minister’s Questions opened in the House of Commons.
Asked about Dominic Cummings’ evidence, the Prime Minister failed to deny key allegations from it when asked by opposition leader Kier Starmer.
Instead, Boris Johnson deflected the questions by referring to a public inquiry. Mr Johnson refused to give a date for that inquiry’s start.
Mr Johnson seemed to decide poking the hornets’ nest would invite further disclosures from Mr Cummings, more damning than the testimony already given.
The picture Mr Cummings painted was chaos at the heart of Government, institutional complacency, lack of expertise in the key departments, and – tellingly – a Prime Minister and Cabinet with only a tenuous grasp on the urgency of the situation.
Given a chance to plan for different scenarios and allocate adequate resources, the Prime Minister and other key ministers preferred to look on the sunny side, hope for the best, and expect something to turn up.
The PM took his opportunity to have a holiday.
Nothing Mr Cummings said was more telling than his revelation that the reason the UK did not enter lockdown sooner was the Government – including the civil service – did not have a plan. The part of the civil service supposed to deal with civil emergencies couldn’t cope because it lacked expertise in the response it was supposed to handle. Planning was always based on a peak of the virus twelve weeks in the future from the date of any meeting.
The pandemic’s first wave peaked in late April. The Government, as late as March 14, planned for a peak in June.
JOHNSON LIKE THE MAYOR IN JAWS
Mr Cummings’ account of a shielding plan drawn up over two all-night brainstorming sessions after the lockdown’s announcement was hair-raising. At the eleventh hour it emerged the UK hadn’t taken account of vulnerable groups’ protection.
As the pandemic raged and demands made to put a brake on overseas travel, Dominic Cummings claimed the PM didn’t want one. He painted a picture of a media-obsessed Boris Johnson swayed by press campaigns against taking preventative action.
Mr Cummings explained Mr Johnson’s behaviour was like the Mayor’s in Jaws. He wanted to keep the beach open, even as the shark ate the swimmers.
On a broader topic, Dominic Cummings criticised a ‘crackers’ political system that allowed people like him and Boris Johnson to exercise such power during an emergency when they were unqualified to deal with one.
Mr Cummings’ tarter observations about the ability of the UK’s political parties included a stinging attack on how political parties select and support their leaders.
To summarise his view: he suggested the problem with the political system in this country is that voters had a choice between people like Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson at the last election.
He concluded from that statement that the parties need to look at themselves to find out why they put ‘that sort of person’ forward for office.
That’s an issue beyond the current inquiry’s scope. ‘Teflon Al Johnson’ will be very grateful it is after Wednesday’s hearing.
National 20mph limit comes into force in Wales next year
WALES will be the first UK nation to impose a 20mph default speed limit following a vote held in the Senedd yesterday (July 12). The Welsh Government voted to limit residential roads and busy pedestrian streets to 20mph.
According to the Welsh Government, this will lessen the likelihood and severity of accidents involving vulnerable road users. It will also encourage more people to cycle and walk.
39 members of the Senedd voted in favour, while 15 members voted against.
The new national default speed limit will come into effect from September 2023. The Welsh Government say the changes affect residential roads and busy pedestrian streets.
According to the Welsh Government, the modifications have an impact on major pedestrian routes and residential roadways. The Welsh Government is still deciding which highways will have 20mph speed restrictions and which ones should stay at 30mph.
The 22 councils in Wales will collaborate with Go Safe to determine implementation timelines, according to the Welsh Government, but enforcement will continue throughout the transition period.
Climate change minister, Julie James, stated: “The future of our towns and cities depends on our ability to move around sustainably and on solutions that have a positive impact on public health environment and communities.
“That is why we will use the principle that walking, cycling and active travel must remain the best options for short urban journeys and a 20mph default speed limit will help achieve this. The introduction of a national 20mph limit would be an important and far reaching policy. If passed Wales would be the first country in the UK to introduce the change. We’re asking you all to be part of this change and make our communities understand the wider benefits of 20mph.
“This change is a generational one and when the time to embed, it will need to be accompanied by an important communication and marketing campaign and behaviour change initiatives. Achieving behavioural change is challenging but Wales has previously shown that we can do it successfully with policies such as organ donation, the banning of smoking in public places, and limiting the use of plastic bags. It does, however, require a collaborative effort between agencies, local authorities and by communities. We need to bring speeds down.”
She continued, saying there is evidence that 20 mph speed limits encourage more people to bike or walk, and she hoped this would lead to people naturally choosing those modes of transportation.
According to Ms. James, 80 people die on Welsh roads on average each year, and current data shows that 30mph is the speed at which 53 percent of accidents occur.
The immediate cost is about £33 million, but according to the Welsh Government, increased road safety brought on by slower average speeds could generate a positive financial return of about £25 million over the course of 30 years due to the money saved on fewer emergency services and hospital visits.
Additionally, the policy might result in significant wider economic gains from increased road safety (£1.4 billion), environmental and health gains from increased active travel (£5 million), and additional unquantified benefits from more vibrant and connected local economies.
Large number of NHS staff in Wales currently off work as Covid cases rise
HEALTH MINISTER Eluned Morgan has said Wales is in the “midst of a new wave” Covid infections” and that around 1 in 20 people had the virus last week.
According to ONS data, it’s estimated that 149,700 people tested positive for COVID-19 for the seven days to 30 June.
Ms Morgan said a large number of NHS staff in Wales are currently off work because they have Covid-19.
Updating Senedd Members on the current situation in Wales, the health minister said: “Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen a steady rise in the number of coronavirus infections in Wales.”
“We are in the midst of a new wave of infections, caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 subtypes of the omicron variant.”
“These are fast-moving, highly infectious forms of the virus, which are causing a surge in infections across the UK and in many other countries around the world.” She said.
Public Health Wales reports the current dominant variant in Wales is the BA.5 variant of omicron.
The latest results of the ONS’ Coronavirus Infection Survey estimate 4.93% of the population in Wales had Covid-19 in the week ending 30 June – equivalent to approximately one person in 20.
This has increased from an estimated 1.33% of the population (one in 75) from the week ending 2 June.
Across the UK, the estimated prevalence of coronavirus ranges from 3.95% in England to 5.94% in Scotland for the week ending 30 June.
Ms Morgan said: “As we have seen in previous waves, the increase in cases in the community, has led to an increase in the number of people being admitted to and treated in hospital for Covid-19.”
“The latest available information shows there are now more than 960 Covid-19-related patients in Welsh hospitals and there has also been an increase in number of people with Covid-19 being treated in critical care.”
She said: “The NHS has been working incredibly hard to provide planned care for people across Wales and to reduce waiting times, which had built up over the course of the pandemic. This task becomes more difficult when pandemic pressures increase.”
“Some hospitals have taken the difficult decision to restrict visiting to prevent coronavirus from spreading among patients and staff; others are asking all visitors to wear face coverings.”
“We are not making face coverings mandatory in health and care settings , but I would encourage everyone to wear one if they are visiting a healthcare setting and I would also ask people to consider wearing a face covering in crowded indoor public places, while cases of coronavirus are currently high.”
“We have extended the availability of free lateral flow tests for people who have symptoms of coronavirus until the end of July.” Ms Morgan said.
She added: “There are a number of other simple steps everyone can take to keep themselves and Wales safe.”
- Get vaccinated
- Maintain good hand hygiene
- Stay at home and limit your contact with others if you are ill
- Wear a face covering in indoor crowded or enclosed places
- Meet others outdoors wherever possible
- When indoors, increase ventilation and let fresh air in.
Following Boris Johnson’s resignation, who could replace him as Prime Minister?
MOST prime ministers would have resigned over any one of the scandals to engulf Boris Johnson’s government. Johnson, never one for tradition or rules, rode out nearly every crisis – but the Chris Pincher affair was the final straw.
Led by Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, over 50 members of Johnson’s government resigned in a day and a half. Johnson has now resigned as party leader, vowing to remain PM until a new leader is chosen.
Johnson was not a typical leader, and his successor will have a difficult job.
They will need to strengthen the Conservative party before the next general election (which could come sooner rather than later).
They will need to distance themselves from the more problematic aspects of Johnson’s legacy, while steadying the ship and appealing to the electorate.
Here are the likely runners and riders for this seemingly impossible task:
While not perhaps as well known as some of the candidates, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is considered a serious contender. He has been pivotal in the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was clear in the run-up to the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that action was needed to evacuate UK citizens and others in danger. He did not resign from Johnson’s cabinet, which might count against him, but he certainly looks like a strong candidate. Early polling suggests Wallace is the candidate to beat, but the campaign will test his early popularity.
Minister of State for Trade Policy Penny Mordaunt is not necessarily a household name, but she is very respected within the Conservative party. Mordaunt was a short-lived but well-respected defence minister and recently Royal Navy reservist. She previously served as secretary of state for international development (before the department was merged with the Foreign Office). Like Wallace, Mordaunt stuck by Johnson over the last few days, but her popularity within the party might allow her to overcome that issue, particularly if she can play up her pro-Brexit credentials.
The former chancellor was considered the leader in waiting in the early stages of the pandemic. His early successes with the furlough scheme elevated his status and profile, but his star faded fairly quickly. Questions over his wife’s tax status and wealth generally made Sunak seem out of touch with voters. He was also, along with Johnson, fined by police over lockdown parties in Downing Street. While he remains a strong candidate, he might have wished that his opportunity to stand for leader had come sooner.
Javid has the distinction of having resigned from a Johnson cabinet twice. His first resignation, from his role as chancellor just before the pandemic, was driven by his desire to appoint his own staff. He was invited back into cabinet after Matt Hancock’s resignation. While considered by many within the party as a very capable MP, with a working-class background that would count in his favour, some worry Javid showed a lack of judgment in rejoining the Johnson cabinet.
Zahawi came to public prominence when he spearheaded the vaccine rollout. His time as education secretary has been viewed positively, but his move to the Treasury less than two days before telling Johnson to resign have made some question his motives. Perception that he allowed personal ambition to override his moral compass is likely to hurt Zahawi. He will need to answer for this when asked by the party and country.
Currently overseas on official business, the foreign secretary will undoubtedly be thankful not to have been caught up in the chaos of this week. But is she too absent? While considered by many a “safe pair of hands” she is not a dynamic candidate for leader, and it is doubtful whether she can become an electoral asset to the party. If the Conservatives want a safe choice instead of another “exciting” leader to follow Johnson, Truss may have a shot.
The deputy prime minister is another potential leader in waiting. He has occupied a number of cabinet roles including secretary of state for Brexit, foreign secretary and now justice minister. While he certainly has a high-ranking position, he has had a number of missteps. As Brexit minister, he finished off the negotiations his predecessor David Davis began, then resigned because he couldn’t accept the deal he helped to finalise. As foreign secretary, he was criticised for his lack of speed during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. That, coupled with his earlier comments calling British workers the “worst idlers in the world” before he joined the cabinet, make him a long shot for Downing Street.
The rest of the pack
On the backbenches, there are expected to be at least three potential candidates – former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, prominent Brexiteer Steve Baker, and well-respected backbench MP Tom Tugendhat. For any backbencher wanting to catapult themselves into Downing Street, the ride is likely to be bumpy. A track record of success is usually needed. This is harder for a backbencher, either because they have never been in cabinet, or because they have left cabinet (usually after being asked to). These individuals have a long road ahead of them.
There will be others who may want to scope out their prospects with the party. Cabinet secretaries Priti Patel or even Jacob Rees-Mogg might test the water, but they are likely to find it cold.
The battle ahead will inevitably have its twists and turns, and it is almost impossible to predict the outcome. Many within the Conservative party, and perhaps the country, will be hoping for less exciting times than they have recently lived through.
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