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Sensemaker: The Cummings questionnaire

Thursday 27 May 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Biden ordered US intelligence to produce a new report on the origins of Covid within 90 days, answering “specific questions for China”.
  • 150 people were feared dead after a ferry sank crossing the River Niger in northwestern Nigeria.
  • Matt Hancock rejected Dominic Cummings’ claims that he lied about the UK’s Covid preparedness and said he got up every day asking himself what to do to protect life. 

Cummings’ epic appearance yesterday in front of the health and social care select committee nonetheless alarmed the government, thrilled the Lobby and filled 14 pages of the Daily Mail. The question it left hanging was whether the rest of the country would care, and that is where we start with the…

Cummings questionnaire

Should we care? Should UK citizens be concerned that the former senior Downing Street advisor Dominic Cummings told a parliamentary committee that:

  • tens of thousands of people died from Covid who could have been saved
  • the prime minister was unfit for office
  • the health secretary lied repeatedly and should have been fired
  • Britain’s Covid response as a whole fell “disastrously short” of what people had a right to expect
  • herd immunity was government policy at the start of the first wave
  • the PM considered Covid a scare story until told in March by Helen McNamara, a senior civil servant, that the country was already “fucked” 
  • the PM did say he’d rather see “bodies piled high” than order a second lockdown
  • the PM refused to listen to advice to lock down early last September?

Should we care? On balance, yes. Cummings is an unreliable witness on a revenge mission but this was not about who paid to refurbish the prime minister’s flat. It was about mass loss of life, and his evidence to the committee accords with a mountain of detailed reporting already in the public domain. 

There is an argument, eloquently put by the journalist Ian Dunt, that Cummings himself created the conditions for his claims to be ignored: “He needed MPs to believe him… [but] he had worked to undermine the operational role of truthfulness in political discourse. And now, when he needed it most, it was nowhere to be found.” 

But it was clear that MPs did believe him. Voters may not, or may already have factored all Cummings’ claims into their view of the Johnson government. But he was at the heart of that government and Johnson had begged him to be there. So the claims have to be taken seriously. 

What else is Cummings up to? Apart from getting his own back on former colleagues with whom he’s fallen out, he’s cosying up to Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, for whom he had only saccharine praise. He may even believe he can help Sunak replace Johnson.

Did he actually say anything new? Yes. The suggestion that Donald Trump added to the confusion in Number Ten at a critical point in March 2020 by asking the UK to join the US on a bombing campaign in Iraq is new. So is the claim that Trump “had the CIA flying around trying to gazump the UK” on obtaining supplies of PPE (h/t Politico’s London Playbook).

Does this hurt Johnson? In the short term probably not. He’s still the Teflon PM who personally orchestrated a 16 per cent swing to the Tories in Hartlepool after the “bodies piled high” quote was multi-sourced and widely reported. Longer term, if he did say this it should worry him that he told the Commons he didn’t because misleading parliament is traditionally a resigning matter. Traditionally.

Does this hurt Hancock? Possibly. After 18 months taking unanswerable questions for the team, Johnson may decide his health secretary has served his purpose.

How much longer can the government delay the Covid inquiry? As long as it likes. That’s what an 80-seat majority is for. But in a sense the inquiry has already begun, in parliament.

New things technology, science, engineering

Unprivate cycling
Poor old Peloton. TechCrunch reveals that the company that helps you ride the Tour de France in your living room failed to prevent other users finding out where you actually live. Peloton was supposed to remove metadata showing users’ location from their profile pictures, but didn’t. Tech companies are generally given 90 days to fix this sort of glitch when researchers find them. Peloton was, and has, but some riders may find it creepy to think any of the platform’s 4.4 million members who used the loophole before it was closed could still come knocking on their door. Earlier this month the company announced a recall of 125,000 of its treadmills (as distinct from stationary bikes) for safety reasons. Note: you can always go outside.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Covax failing
Covax, the international scheme set up last year to vaccinate poor countries against Covid, is failing. It has shipped fewer than a third of the 238 million doses it hoped to deliver by the end of May, and only 4 per cent of the global total. Last week Vox did a good analysis of Covax’s challenges and a $2.6 billion funding shortfall was chief among them. But today’s WSJ makes clear ($) there are two others: the scheme depends on AstraZeneca doses from the Serum Institute of India and the SII is now distributing only within India. And even if Covax had the missing $2.6 billion it wouldn’t be enough. As Dr Seth Berkley, who leads the scheme, tells the Journal, rich countries did eventually pony up most of the money they had pledged, “and said, good luck competing against us”. As Israel and the UK showed, vaccines have effectively been auctioned to the highest bidder. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

2-0 to Earth 
We’ve been following Engine No. 1’s efforts to turn around the supertanker called Exxon. Yesterday those efforts paid off ($) and at least two climate-minded nominees were voted onto the oil giant’s board against the wishes of its old-school CEO, Darren Woods. Vote-counting continues today with two more seats up for grabs, with mega-investors BlackRock Inc and CalPERS (the California state pension fund) backing Engine No. 1. Woods said he heard what shareholders were saying. Meanwhile a Dutch court ordered Shell to be much more ambitious about cutting its emissions. Climate people are already saying 26 May will go down as a great day in the history of environmentalism. Beware wishful thinking. Shell says it will appeal.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Montenegro’s road to nowhere
Montenegro (GDP €4.9 billion) has accepted Chinese loans worth nearly €1 billion to start building a sleek four-lane highway from the old smuggling port of Bar on the Adriatic coast via its capital, Podgorica, to the Serbian border in the north. But so far, after six years’ work, mainly by Chinese workers, the road goes only from tiny Mateševo in Montenegro’s central highlands to another small town near the capital, and the country has run out of money. If it can’t service the loans it may have to cede control of the road to Beijing. This is the slide to indebtedness playing out across Africa thanks to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, in a country that wants to be in the EU. AFP has the story and it’s a cracker.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Emily Wilder
Two years ago Emily Wilder was graduating from Stanford, hoping to work in journalism. This month she was fired from a coveted entry-level position with the Associated Press at its Phoenix bureau because of tweets on the Israel-Palestine conflict from her days as a student and since. One of the student tweets called Sheldon Adelson, the late Republican donor and Jewish supporter of Israel, a naked mole-rat. Later ones have grappled with journalistic conventions on language used to report Israel-Palestine issues. At no point did Wilder herself report on them, but ex-Stanford Republican activists retweeted her tweets and the AP decided – at a time when it was being accused by congressional Republicans of pro-Palestinian bias – that they violated its social media rules. So she’s gone. Now the AP apologises for how it fired her, but not for firing her. It will be interesting to see where she crops up next.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs by Getty Images

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