I am only too aware of the sacrifices people have made over the last few weeks. My mother died just before lockdown and one of my sisters had to think long and hard about whether she would be safe coming to say her goodbyes, being in her seventies with an underlying health conditions. I’ve lost two uncles during lockdown, neither of whom I could visit before but fortunately one of whom I could join the limited numbers of close family to pay my respects. I am dearly looking forward to the time when we can gather together as a family to celebrate the lives of these three extraordinary people who touched so many across the world over the best part of the last century. Of course we hear stories on a regular basis way more traumatic than my personal grief.
But on the whole people across the UK have stuck to the core message of staying home to protect the NHS and save lives. Although this is the core message, clearly it isn’t the complete message which included people being able to travel to work if their business wasn’t required to work and they could not work from home. It doesn’t cover the guidelines which included such variations as children who lived across two homes in shared custody and it certainly doesn’t cover the endless possibilities that no set of reasonable guidelines could cover at all, let alone in absolute detail. That is one of the reasons that as we look to move to the next stage, the prescriptive sounding ‘Stay at Home, Save Lives,’ has been replaced with a common-sense catch-all of ‘Stay Alert, Save Lives’, giving implicit permission for people to use their own judgement which has largely been the case to date anyway. The initial reason for limiting social contact, of protecting the most vulnerable, has been lost as younger, fit and healthy people fear that they may themselves die from Covid-19, something that remains statistically hugely unlikely.
Dominic Cummings, one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers, has dominated the news and social media after month-old reports of him travelling up to County Durham were finally published by newspapers. Rather than jump in based on conjecture, I prefer to establish a reasonable take on the facts available and so watched his own account of what happened when he and his wife suspected that they were both falling ill with coronavirus. I’ve met him on just one occasion so don’t have any detailed knowledge of the man but I’ve never bought into the mythological Svengali/Macchiaveli status that the press and his opposition have built up around him. I watched the statement live, I watched the questions that followed from the press live. He laid out his reasons for his actions in some detail and showed an approach that was, like any parent of a child under the age of five, very much ‘in the moment’ and driven by the cards he had in his hands in a rapidly changing and multi layered situation. I had no doubt, watching the statement and subsequent questioning live, that all the choices taken were for the good of his child whilst remaining constantly mindful of the need to keep within government guidance.
Firstly, it was a shame that this information wasn’t released earlier. I regret the fact that news has been diminished to minute-by-minute reaction which does not allow for meaningful consideration before long-lasting judgements have been cemented, but that’s the world we are living in now. Secondly whilst we were going through the long days of Brexit, political differences meant that anyone within a mile of Westminster could trip over an argument and write a column about it. Since then, political journalists have had to work harder to get an ‘interesting story’, something that doesn’t necessarily correlate with importance for viewers who are getting on with their lives. This has been illustrated by the fact that it took some time for all media outlets to recognise that the Covid 19 emergency is not a political crisis as Brexit was – it was not a political choice of the government to be affected by Covid therefore it seems to me that when the Secretary of State for Health for example is being questioned surely the most qualified would be departmental specific correspondents ie the health correspondents rather than the political editor? The post-press conference commentary came after a number of journalists spent nearly an hour questioning him directly and then with hindsight compiled a new set of questions, whereas Dominic Cummings made his decisions in real-time; balancing his family’s need, his interpretation of the guidelines and his important work for the country.
Notwithstanding this there were a number of points in the reports and Dominic Cummings’ own account that deserved questions from the Prime Minister and the politically-focused media. Based on what I heard throughout the whole press conference, I believe that he answered the central point that he acted within the guidance allowing for his family’s exceptional circumstances. Some people may disagree with some of his judgement calls, but I believe that he made them in good faith based on his understanding of the guidance, in the best interest of his family and his position within the heart of government at a particularly crucial time without setting himself ahead of others. With that in mind, I’d rather him and others in government. be able to concentrate on the job at hand as we enter a particularly difficult phase of the crisis. I’ve been heavily involved in the return to work as we lift restrictions. The government’s first priority has always been to save lives, but protecting livelihoods and businesses is crucial if we are able to go through the gears economically and bounce back when the scientific advice allows.
I can understand the frustration from some. Yes, there are political scores being settled, with the left trying to take a scalp and some of the Brexit leavers still sore that Dominic Cummings has been critical of them, but most people with no political axe to grind, have seen the headlines and some of the coverage and many are understandably angry. Based on Dominic Cummings’ account of himself, I believe that we are now at the time to move on to the things that will affect people way after he is a footnote in political memoirs. His approach to government gives us a chance to build an approach that is often pushed by those sick of the normal state of affairs.
Raking over every minor detail won’t save a life, protect a job, or improve a single child’s education. Drilling into the detail of the bladder capacity of his child is just not a world I want to be part of. We don’t live in a police state which is why the Prime Minister thought long and hard about how and when we started to restrict freedoms. We are coming to the point when we can gradually look into the light and slowly start to enjoy those freedoms and release the pause button on our lives. But to do that effectively we need to continue to work together. There is no different set of rules for those in power. There is however a different spotlight, a huge cost on family life and a relentless daily pressure. I would love to be able to see my children after 63 days. I want others to be with their loved ones but just concentrating on one polarising individual won’t bring that moment any closer.