Boris Johnson must sack Dominic Cummings to save lives – leader comment

Boris Johnson’s failure to hold Dominic Cummings to a strict interpretation of the lockdown risks seriously undermining the ‘test, trace and isolate’ strategy and could cost lives.
Dominic Cummings leaves after making his statement in Downing Street about his lockdown trip to his parents' farm in County DurhamDominic Cummings leaves after making his statement in Downing Street about his lockdown trip to his parents' farm in County Durham
Dominic Cummings leaves after making his statement in Downing Street about his lockdown trip to his parents' farm in County Durham

It would take a hard heart not to feel basic human sympathy for Dominic Cummings for what he and his family have been through with Coronavirus.

Yesterday the Prime Minister’s chief adviser told how his wife had “vomited and felt like she might pass out” at their home in London, about his fear that he would become ill, leaving no one able to care for his young son, and how that had prompted the decision to drive 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham to take advantage of an offer of childcare from a relative who lives in the area. He said that he had later developed Covid-19 symptoms and that his child had become ill enough to be taken to hospital. It was, quite clearly, an extremely difficult time for the family.

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That said, however, it is impossible to judge this episode and his subsequent actions without acknowledging that they have significantly altered the wider public understanding of what is permissible under lockdown rules.

In backing Cummings, and agreeing that his unrepentant chief adviser has done no wrong, Boris Johnson has severely restricted the ability of his Government to enforce a strict test, trace and isolate policy.

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What happens when someoneone is called to say they have been in contact with someone who has contracted Covid and must isolate themselves to protect the wider community? Will they get the same leeway to make personal judgements on how and where to isolate depending on their own circumstances? And what if that judgement is spectacularly bad?

The loud and clear message that has been sent to the public is that the rules of the lockdown are open to a liberal interpretation by each and every one of us. We are not so much under lock and key but only loosely bound by the restrictions.

That unaviodably undermines our efforts to control the spread of this deadly disease as we move to the ‘test, trace and isolate’ strategy.

Even if we manage to ramp up testing capacity to the required level, employ thousands of people as contact-tracers and sign up millions to a specially designed app, this will not be effective if people’s definition of ‘isolate’ involves taking long trips to different parts of the country and any other journeys that they deem necessary.

While eliciting sympathy, there are some parts of Cummings’ account which were not entirely satisfactory, meaning further questions are inevitable.

The 60-mile round trip to the pretty market town of Barnard Castle was supposedly in order to test whether his eye sight was up to the long journey home to London.

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We are all capable of making slightly odd choices in life that we later find hard to explain, but this seems particularly hard to swallow.

The UK developed one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in the world partly because our politicians and officials were slow to react. The shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and a lack of testing capacity have already cost lives.

The risk now is that any further mistakes lead to another rise in the infection rate, ultimately leading to more deaths and a return to strict lockdown.

The risk which the Prime Minister is taking by endorsing Cummings’ actions is that he has severely compromised the public safety message and that lives will be lost as a result. Sacking Cummings would have avoided that entirely and allowed the Government to return its focus to the real day job.

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