Dominic Cummings has been giving evidence to the Commons Science and Technology select committee. He remains unshakable in his belief in his own genius, even though it is obvious to everyone that the Government has performed loads better since he left.
The Government won’t hold an inquiry into Covid until next year at the soonest, which seems daft – better politically to get the bad news dealt wth while everyone is happy about vaccines and re-opening and the PM is popular. Leaving it to next year is a massive hostage to fortune, but the PM is a needy character who likes to read good headlines about himself, and doesn’t want anything to spoil that warm glow. In the absence of an inquiry this is the nearest we will get to finding out what actually went wrong in the first 10 months of the Covid response.
The most eye-watering of Cummings’ claims are about Matt Hancock. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was listening the leader of a playground clique slagging off people who weren’t in his gang, an impression reinforced by a painfully crass reference to Spiderman memes.
The problem with Cummings testimony is that having stuck to his Barnard Castle eye test story his own credibility is pretty much nowt.
So how much of Cummings claims about Hancock should we believe?
Test and Trace
Hancock did tell lies about hitting the test and trace target. Boris Johnson announced in April 2020 that we would have a World Class Test and Trace system by June, and we would be testing 100,000 people per day by the 30th April. Hancock stood up in the House and announced that he had smashed the target and achieved 122,000 tests a day. He was quick to claim victory:
Immediately after he announced it Health Service Journal revealed that the target had only be achieved because they had changed the definition of tests from tests completed to tests sent. out. Hancock changed the definition and then ordered officials to send loads of random tests out. He misled Parliament. The head of the UK Statistics Authority wrote to Hancock express concerns about his honesty. Pre-2010 this would have been a resigning matter, but now apparently not.
Hancock also claimed that there were no shortages of PPE for NHS and care home staff. He made this claim at the time, and repeated it again in February 2021. No-one in the NHS believed him for a moment. This is NHS providers dealing with PPE shortages:
At least one North East NHS Trust set up their own PPE factory which still operates in order to deal with shortages, despite pressure from DHSC.
Hancock also claimed that it was appropriate to set up a VIP channel for mates of Ministers to sell PPE to the NHS because there wasn’t an established supply chain for these products. This isn’t true either. The NHS has a procurement “tower” contract for PPE that was relet in 2019 under the instructions of the Sectary of State – Matt Hancock.
Possibly the most disturbing claim made by Hancock to his colleagues and the public was around care homes. Hancock claimed to have thrown a “protective ring” around homes to stop the NHS discharging patients with Covid into them. Frankly this is an incredible claim that is counter not just to official DHSC guidance but we could see it with our own eyes. While we were making hand sanitiser we were approached by a local businessman who made dispensers for vape fluid – we used these to make hand held hand sanitiser dispensers. His mum was in one of the homes in North West Durham with a high infection rate and he was desperate to get hold of some hand sanitiser for them. I have never seen anyone look so scared and desperate.
Whatever else Cummings says his comments about Matt Hancock are spot on. In the past this would have meant that Hancock was finished as a Minister. He certainly commands no respect among any NHS staff clinical or managerial. But Cummings made criticisms not just of Hancock but Johnson himself. Johnson can’t punish Hancock without admitting that Cummings is right. So Hancock will flounder on.
But the big question is whether any of this matters?
The Government plans a series of reforms of the NHS. Some of these reforms are positive – such as ending the internal market, but they also include a massive power grab by DHSC over the operation of the NHS.
The NHS has performed miles better than DHSC and the rest of Government. Mostly this is because of the hard work and competence of staff. But also the way the NHS is set up, separate from DHSC, has insulated it from the toxic and dysfunctional behaviour . The Governments plans for the NHS will break down the barriers between the NHS and DH, and will be accompanied by a change of personal at the top. The chaos at the top of Government will soon be chaos at the top of DH. Just as importantly the ability of the NHS to express a different opinion to Ministers will be gone, allowing future lies to pass unchallenged.
And this isn’t the end of the story. Hancock blamed Sir Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England for lots of the problems. Sir Simon is standing down and joining the House of Lords, from which his will be a powerful voice in any inquiry into failures to manage Covid. He will have plenty of opportunities to repeat Cummings humiliation.
But none of this seems to matter to voters who have little or no desire right now to punish the Government for their inability to Govern, particularly if the alternative is a Labour Party still struggling to shake off 5 years of Corbyn.
No-one expects honesty or competence any more, even in a crisis.