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Armageddom

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - June 1, 2021 - 12:00am

Political comedians are calling it “Armageddom.” Dominic Cummings, once UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide, testified at a parliamentary committee hearing and let rip an almighty act of political treachery, from which, days later, the political establishment is still recovering.

Cummings made a series of explosive claims about the way the administration had handled the COVID-19 pandemic. In testimony that extended for seven hours, he told a joint session of the House of Commons health, science and technology committee, that his former boss, the man in charge of the UK government, was “unfit for the job,” saying Johnson had ignored scientific advice and delayed locking down the country. Thousands of people died needlessly as a result of government mistakes in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, he said in testimony that was agonizing and infuriating for family members of such victims.

“Tens of thousands of people died, who didn’t need to die,” Cummings said.

He said sorry for ministers, officials and advisers “like me” for falling “disastrously short of the standards that the public has a right to expect.”

“When the public needed us most the government failed,” he added, apologizing to “the families of those who died unnecessarily.”

Mr. Cummings said the government was not on a “war footing” when the virus emerged in January and February last year and “lots of key people were literally skiing.”

This is a man who is credited with winning the Brexit campaign for Johnson and his supporters, managing to undo in mere months, decades of warmer and closer relations with mainland European nations that led to what is probably the world’s most successful regional political economic partnership – the European Union.

When Johnson took office, Cummings was part of the inner circle, but he left his Downing Street role at the end of last year, following an internal power struggle.

He was also notorious. During the first national lockdown, when the government advice was to stay home and with his wife suffering COVID symptoms, his trip to visit his family home in County Durham became social media legend, dominating the tabloid front pages and the national conversation for days. It seemed there was one rule for the elite and another for the rest of us.

Nevertheless, Boris Johnson stood by his adviser – against the advice of some of his supporters. It undermined the PM’s attempts to hold the country together during the national crisis.

Cummings is a maverick who doesn’t seem to care what people think about him, while Johnson likes to be popular. They formed a strong bond in the white heat of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign to get Britain out of the EU, with Cummings as campaign director.

The combination of Johnson, the flamboyant household-name frontman, and Cummings, the ruthless, data-driven strategist, with a flair for an eye-catching slogan, proved to be unbeatable.

Mr. Cummings was credited with the slogan: “Take Back Control” won over the majority of voters, changing the course of British history. He went on to devise the high-risk strategy of pushing for the 2019 election to be fought on a “Get Brexit Done” ticket. It won seats in the opposition Labour Party heartlands, in a way that previous Conservative or Tory leaders hadn’t managed for decades.

Cummings has never actually been a member of the Conservative party, and has made it clear he has little time for many of its membership. He’s made his reputation defying conventional wisdom and challenging the established order. Still, no one could have foreseen that things would unravel to this extent. Cummings is a one-man political wrecking ball.

“The heart of the problem was, fundamentally, I regarded (PM Johnson) as unfit for the job. And I was trying to create a structure around him to try and stop what I thought would have been bad decisions and push things through against his wishes,” Cummings alleged last Thursday. Confirming a previous report, he told the parliamentary committee that Johnson said he would rather see “bodies pile high” than order a third lockdown in the autumn of 2020.

Because he was so very close to power, Cummings’ allegations cannot be easily ignored, but they are unnerving to say the least. He described vividly the chaotic atmosphere in Downing Street on one “crazy” day in March 2020 when the government was considering a national lockdown – at the same time as officials considered a bombing campaign in Iraq, and the PM’s girlfriend was going “completely crackers” over a story in a national newspaper about their dog. Cummings claimed meetings about quarantine and the coronavirus were “totally derailed.”

“So, we have this sort of completely insane situation in which part of the building was saying, ‘are we going to bomb Iraq?,’ part of the building was arguing about whether or not we’re going to do quarantine or not do quarantine, the prime minister has his girlfriend going crackers about something completely trivial,” he said.

Cummings recounted how the deputy cabinet secretary had said, “We are absolutely f*cked” because there is no lockdown plan there was “no plan... we’re in huge trouble.” He said the PM was warned: “The NHS is going to be smashed in weeks. Really we’ve got days to act.” It took a further nine days before Mr. Johnson announced a national lockdown, for which Cummings readily admitted he was partially responsible.

He said it was “obvious” in retrospect that the UK should have locked down in the first week of March at the latest – and it was a “huge failure” on his part not to alert the prime minister. “I bitterly regret that I didn’t hit the emergency panic button earlier than I did,” he added.

There were further hugely damaging claims against the Health Secretary, whom Cummings said “should have been fired for at least 15 to 20 things.” According to Cummings, Matt Hancock displayed “criminal, disgraceful behavior” as he held back coronavirus tests and meddled in efforts to build a mass testing system in order to meet a “stupid” pledge of 100,000 tests per day in April 2020.

Hancock, Johnson, Downing Street and the Ministry of Health have strenuously denied it all, refusing to address the individual charges in any detail. Indeed, Johnson married his girlfriend in a surprise and secret ceremony, which cynics suspect may have been a move to distract attention.

This insight into the heart of power in the UK has already been hugely worrying and the repercussions are far from over.

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