Why is the Cummings situation so troubling?

For the last few days there has been little in the media other than Dominic Cummings. This is troubling for a number of reasons. On the one hand, Downing Street is briefing a story about a concerned parent behaving in a ‘reasonable’ (a bit word in the press conference today) way. Dominic Cummings drove his family from London to Durham because he was concerned, should his wife and he both fall ill simultaneously, that they would not be able to look after his four year old child. Cummings took a decision that his family were better placed to cope with this, and they were in Durham. So he drove his wife and child there. While he was there, but after 14 days, he took his family on a drive to check that he was well enough to drive back to London the next day, and that was when they were all seen in Barnard Castle.

I think there are at least three issues here.

First, why are we talking about this? The argument here is that, because an important advisor to Downing Street didn’t stay at home (the basic message which he may have been central to devising), this undermines the public health message which is central to government policy. We might say that in another era the media wouldn’t have reported any of this story, and advisors and politicians in the past got away with far worse. Or we might say there is a difference between the character and behaviour of an advisor and this value of this advice he or she is able to offer. However, there is a danger that Cummings’ actions being so widely known, and so widely debated, will undermine the public health message. That suggests it would be better if he were no longer advising the government.

Second, there are concerns that the story presented by Cummings’ still doesn’t hang together. I’m not sure I buy the Barnard Castle part of the story. What happened there seems at best misguided and at worst a basic breach of the guidance. It seems to me he made an error here, and should apologise. Maybe things wouldn’t have been so awful today had he admitted that. Others have pointed out other holes in the story.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Cummings’ situation makes clear the differences in options that different people have in a time of crisis. I am fortunate enough to live in a big enough house to have space for my wife and I to be able to work separately from home. I have a garden, which means I can have a dog (or two). All of this helps with my mental health. Perhaps what grates with so many people is that Cummings was able to go and live on his father’s estate to isolate, still be separate from the rest of his family, and walk in the woods on the estate. He was able to up sticks and drive to that situation, away from his and his wife’s work without fear of them losing their jobs. He had options that most people lack. Cummings had a wider range of possibilities than most people, and decided to make use of them. In doing so I believe he made some errors along the way.

What I take from all of this is that it has made so clear that, even if you believe or not that Cummings’ broke the letter of the rules about COVID, he certainly had a range of options for coping with the virus that most people lack, and the confidence and ability to make use of them. My own view is that this whole mess makes clear that this virus impacts those with resources, and those without, in very different ways. Is that fair? I’ll leave that up to you.


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