Marcus Shepheard reflects on Dominic Cumming’s extraordinary and extended testimony to MPs – and says the prime minister’s former chief adviser is right to call for the Covid inquiry to begin work immediately
The IfG agrees with Dominic Cummings: in the words of the prime minister’s former chief adviser, “there is absolutely no excuse for delaying” the public inquiry into the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
In his long testimony to MPs, Cummings argued that the institutional weaknesses persist and cannot be fixed soon enough. The huge territory covered in Cummings’ day-long evidence session, a joint hearing of the Health and Social Care and the Science and Technology commitees, also highlighted the ground the inquiry should cover – and made clear why an inquiry is the only way to investigate and learn the lessons of the pandemic.
Cummings’s accusations of Hancock and Johnson will require further investigation
The specific policy choices raised by MPs – care homes, testing, procurement, schools, lockdowns, the tier system, Eat Out to Help Out and travel restrictions – are the same areas the inquiry will need to explore, while the headlines made as Cummings tore into personalities and procedures also require investigation. Did Matt Hancock lie to the prime minister? How did the temperament of the prime minister affect decisions?
There are also many questions about how advice was provided – both by officials and expert bodies such as SAGE – and how other forces, such as media coverage and backbench lobbying, influenced key decisions. Cummings alleges that the prime minister was not always taking advice from officials and that the cabinet was often sidelined for key decisions – such as a second lockdown. He also argued that existing structures which should have provided support, such as COBR and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, were not up to the task.
Cummings’s view that the prime minister was “unfit” for the job is not something that the inquiry can or should assess, although it absolutely should assess the quality of the decisions he made. However, every prime minister, irrespective of their fitness for the job, deserves to have advice and systems of support around them which enable them to do the job, and the inquiry must investigate how advice was provided and how it shaped ministerial decisions.
But while Cummings was in, or close to, the rooms where decisions were taken during the crisis, his is just one individual’s account. Evidence from a wide range of individuals is needed to give a fuller account. Some individuals, including the prime minister, have already repudiated Cummings’s assertions, but until everyone has had their say, under oath, it will be impossible to know exactly what happened. The inquiry will have to reconstruct the truth from a mountain of evidence, examine and explain any inconsistencies, and no other institution is up to this task.
This session showed that alternatives to an inquiry are not up to the task
Prior to announcing the public inquiry, the prime minister had suggested that investigations by parliamentary select committees and the National Audit Office (NAO) would be sufficient. This was always a dubious argument. Parliament and the NAO both lack the powers, capabilities, remit and resources to investigate failure in the same way an inquiry can. Select committees hearings in particular are often too short to get into the detail, and easily side-tracked by members who want to make particular political points.
In contrast, the marathon session with Cummings, expertly chaired by two former ministers, had time to really probe issues in great depth. That said, the limitations of the format were clear. At one point, Greg Clark pinned Cummings down with a series of tricky questions about whether he had given unauthorised briefings to the media. Cummings wouldn’t commit to releasing his communications with journalists, while doing everything he could to avoid answering the questions. The inquiry will have the power to compel him to produce these records.
Similarly, while Cummings alluded to documents to support his allegations he did not provide much in the way of evidence. An inquiry is better prepared to equip itself for evidence sessions, and witness testimony can be tested directly against documents on the record, rather than oblique references to them.
Lastly, the quality of questioning was – perhaps unsurprisingly over many hours – inconsistent. An experienced counsel, in an inquiry setting, would be better able to extract testimonies under oath – and from witnesses who may well not be as compliant as Cummings.
Cummings is right that the inquiry needs to start as soon as possible
“Tens of thousands died who didn’t need to die.” Cummings’s shocking claim is the main reason an inquiry is needed – to ascertain whether the government made preventable mistakes and, if it did, to prevent these mistakes from happening again.
While Cummings spoke, Boris Johnson was facing MPs at PMQs. The prime minister reaffirmed that there would be an inquiry but accused Labour of being “fixated on the rear-view mirror” while the public wanted the government to move forward with its agenda. But political salience is not the same as importance, and the prime minister cannot afford to be glib with this issue, not after so many have died and so much has been lost.
However, as Cummings said, there is not only an urgent need to fix how the government responds to crises but also public desire for accountability. The prime minister might well be keen to move on from the events of the last year, but he has no reason to assume the nation is so keen to join him. As his former adviser made clear, there is no excuse to delay the start of the public inquiry.