Euan McColm: Protect the NHS, sack Cummings, has the right ring to it

A couple of weeks into coronavirus lockdown, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon faced a very difficult decision.

Dominic Cummings leaves his north London home yesterday. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA
Dominic Cummings leaves his north London home yesterday. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA

A newspaper had revealed that Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, had ignored the advice – for which she was partly responsible – that people should stay home as part of efforts to contain the deadly virus and Sturgeon was under pressure to do a spot of sacking.

You may recall an excruciating press conference during which Sturgeon condemned Calderwood’s actions before handing over to the CMO who apologised for what she accepted was inexcusable behaviour.

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The First Minister’s line was that while she was perfectly clear that Calderwood had been out of line, it was time to move on; the CMO’s advice was invaluable and Sturgeon preferred not to lose it.

This was a rare example of Sturgeon completely misreading the public mood. By the time she had finished her press conference, it was clear not only that Calderwood’s hypocrisy was going to continue to undermine the government’s message for as long as she remained in post but that the First Minister had seriously misjudged the public mood.

Yes, a handful of cranks decided that the exposure of Calderwood’s double standards was a despicable unionist plot, but far more who are generally supportive of the First Minister believed the CMO’s position was untenable.

A few hours after the press conference, Sturgeon gave Calderwood the heave ho. It had become clear to Sturgeon that, while the CMO remained in post, her rule-breaking would dominate matters. Sturgeon could try to face down anger about there being one rule for the little people and one for those and such as those, or she could take dramatic action.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson now faces a similar dilemma. The PM’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, it emerges, broke lockdown rules to travel 270 miles north from London to County Durham while displaying symptoms of coronavirus.

When the story broke on Friday night, Downing Street “sources” tried to play it down. And yesterday Cummings himself came out fighting, saying that by travelling to the northeast he had behaved “reasonably and legally”, adding, “Who cares about good looks?”

When Calderwood was exposed for breaking the rules in Scotland, one politician eloquently summed up the problem facing Nicola Sturgeon.

“Dr Calderwood’s position,” he said, “is very difficult, untenable even, given the damage this has caused public trust.

“There cannot be one rule for the bosses and another for everyone else.”

It is, I think, very difficult to find fault there. Scottish Conservative Party leader Jackson Carlaw, whose words those were, was bang on the money.

Carlaw’s wisdom surely applies in this instance, too.

For now, calls for Cummings to go have come only from the Tories’ opponents.

But Johnson should be wary of thinking this is an issue that will simply go away.

Everyone in the country has made some kind of sacrifice in recent months, At best, this has meant grinding along under severe restrictions, at worst it has meant families forced to live apart, separated at times of birth and death.

We are all, then, entitled to ask what makes Cummings so bloody special that the same rules don’t apply to him?

Like all populists, Johnson sold himself to voters as something different. He was the maverick who’d stand by their side in the face of an establishment that had forgotten them.

During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, Johnson was all about openness and accountability. It was time to take power away from faceless bureaucrats and hand it back to the British people.

Johnson’s narrative requires him to get rid of Cummings, doesn’t it? I mean, one can hardly be a convincing man-of-the-people while seeing to it that one’s chums get a by on following the rules.

Cummings is a controversial figure. The former strategist for the Leave campaign in 2016 is considered by Johnson’s opponents to be a malign presence in British politics. This is a view shared by a number of Tories who fear that Cummings’ influence on the Prime Minister is too great. There are plenty in government who would be happy to see the back of the PM’s right-hand man.

The UK government’s position that Cummings’ actions were fine is laughable. If this were truly the case, then they should have announced at the time of his journey that it was taking place, that it was legitimate, and that anyone who found themselves in the same position as the Prime Minister’s adviser should feel free to act similarly.

The UK government did none of this because – simply – what Cummings did was in complete contradiction to the rules that had been laid down for regular Joes.

Carlaw’s words about Calderwood hang in the air, a reminder of Cummings’ contempt for the rules he helped articulate and Johnson’s lack of moral fibre.

And this is, I think, a moral issue for the Prime Minister. Not simply because it’s about the rights and wrongs of a government adviser ignoring government advice but because Johnson knows, more than most, how important lockdown measures are and he has a debt to pay those taking risks to save lives.

Just a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister lay in an intensive care bed, stricken with Covid-19, and fighting for his life. Medical staff, he has said, saved him. If it hadn’t been for the doctors and nurses who attended to him, then the Prime Minister would have been another statistic.

After his release from hospital, Johnson was perfectly clear that the message for everyone to heed was “stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives”.

This message – approved, presumably, by Cummings – made it perfectly clear that those who broke lockdown rules should be considered guilty of putting the NHS at risk.

Can Johnson, after all he has been through, really stand by a man whose actions created the sort of dangers the government warns against?

The Prime Minister owes it to the people who saved his life to sack Dominic Cummings.

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