The Burner #241: Dangerous Liaisons

Ash Sarkar breaks down Boris Johnson’s first appearance at the Commons liaison committee. Plus the danger of false negatives.

Someone messed up :/


Good morning. This is The Burner. It is Thursday May 28. We are still in lockdown.

As we enter Day 6 of the Dominic Cummings scandal – no, I won’t be calling it ‘CumGate’, thank you very much – it’s worth reminding ourselves precisely what it is the government is asking the public to believe.

We are told that on March 27, Dominic Cummings came home from work because his wife Mary Wakefield was extremely unwell. And despite being party to high-level pandemic management discussions in the government, he did not connect Mary’s sudden illness to Covid-19, and so briefly returned to work. Because, of course, if either Mr. Cummings or his wife had even suspected she had contracted the virus, the rules would have meant immediate self-isolation for the entire household, for 14 days.

He then went home again. Despite as yet showing no symptoms, Mr Cummings anticipated that he and his wife may soon be incapacitated by an illness that might be coronavirus, and that neither he nor his wife had reason to think was coronavirus.

So, both believing and not believing that Mary Wakefield was in the grip of Covid-19, the pair raced up to Durham with their 4-year-old son in tow, to seek out the only available childcare. They did not think to ask friends or family in London whether they could help out instead. And despite being the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, Mr. Cummings did not think it necessary to inform his boss where he was going to be for the next two weeks or so.

It was lucky indeed that on a 260-odd mile journey, the Cummings family did not have to stop to fill up the car with petrol, get a snack or some water, or let their 4-year-old son use the toilet. Because everyone knows about the famous bladder fortitude of 4-year-olds.

They arrived at Mr Cummings’ father’s estate at around midnight, had no face-to-face contact with anyone else living on the property, and moved into one of the buildings on the site. According to Mr Cummings, he developed symptoms of coronavirus the next day, on March 28. They never did need that help with childcare, after all.

On April 2, Mr. Cummings’ son fell ill seriously enough to warrant a trip to the local hospital. Mary Wakefield – still ill with coronavirus – went with him. The next day, the child was well enough to return to the Durham property, and Mr. Cummings drove to the hospital to pick up his wife and child as there were, in his words, “no taxis”.

No mention of this hospital trip was made by either Mary Wakefield or Dominic Cummings in their pieces for The Spectator. Indeed, she said that her husband “couldn’t get out of bed,” writing that “Day in, day out for 10 days he lay doggo with a high fever and spasms that made the muscles lump and twitch in his legs.”

On April 12, having sought medical advice and confirmation that it would be alright to return to work in Westminster, Mr. Cummings and his wife were anxious that his eyesight may not be good enough to make the drive back to London.

In order to test his eyesight, the couple bundled up their four year old son in the back of the Land Rover, and drove 30 miles to Barnard Castle. As they reached a spot of astonishing natural beauty by the River Tees, Mr. Cummings suddenly felt unwell, and the family were forced to exit the car and take in their surroundings while he recovered his strength.

Feeling better, they got back in the car to complete the vehicular optometry exam. Alas, their son’s bladder was incapable of the iron feats of fortitude seen on the drive up to Durham a couple of weeks earlier. They stopped by some woods for the child to relieve himself, and somehow got to playing, and were then spotted by a walker. On April 14, Dominic Cummings was spotted back at Downing Street – the government having previously stated that Cummings had been in self-isolation at his primary residence on March 31.

Confusing, right? It’s hard to boil down 6 days of obfuscation, contradiction, and outright bollocks into a bite-sized audio nugget. And I imagine that’s the point. Overload with detail and get bogged down in bafflement, so that the public loses sight of what’s staring us in the face: that, when faced with the same circumstances as thousands of others up and down the country, Dominic Cummings decided that the rules did not apply to him.

And the government, rather than admit that fact, have decided to weave an alternate reality around us all, in which it was always plainly obvious that people were allowed to drive 260 miles or more during the height of lockdown under flimsy pretexts.

At his first ever, much-delayed appearance before the Liaison Committee yesterday, Boris Johnson insisted that the public wants nothing more than to “move on” from the entire shoddy affair.

In front of assembled avengers of the Select Committee Cinematic Universe, the Prime Minister huffed and puffed that we all had more important things to think about at a time of national crisis than whether or not his advisor went on a contraband jolly to Barnard Castle on the day of his wife’s birthday.

Unfortunately for Boris Johnson, the public doesn’t agree.

Simon Hoare MP: IF the R rate starts to creep up and lockdown needs to be replaced either as it is or maybe more full and robust, my inbox tells me that as a result of the last few days, the response of the British people is going to be far less energetic that it was first time around and that is a direct result of the activities of your senior advisor. You’re right to say the we know what your views are. Frankly, prime minister, I don’t think anybody understands why you hold those views.

So, what do we say to our constituents who are likely to say “you can keep your lockdown, if it has to come back, but if other people don’t abide by it why on earth should we?”

Boris Johnson: Well, Simon, I must say, I don’t think that’s true about how the British people will respond to the next phases, to how to work the test and trace and I don’t think that’s how they responded at all throughout the crisis, they responded with fantastic responsibility and collectively we got the incidence of the disease down. Let’s suppose for a second that your were right, which I don’t accept, all the more reason now for us to be consistent and clear with our message of driving those key messages, particularly about washing your hands, maintaining social distance, isolating if you have symptoms – all those things will continue and are absolutely vital as we move into the next phase.

An overwhelming majority of those polled think that the Dominic Cummings’ scandal is an important story. According to YouGov, 70% of Britons – and 59% of Conservative voters – say the Dominic Cummings coronavirus furore will make it harder for the government to get future lockdown messaging across to the public. And in polling published by The Mail yesterday, 65% said that his conduct will make it less likely the public will now follow lockdown rules.

Now, it might be the case that what the polling shows is what professional psephologists call the “that eedjit over there” effect: as in, respondents thinking that they personally wouldn’t be more likely to break the rules, but “that eedjit over there” might. But quite worryingly, in the same poll, 23% of respondents said that Dominic Cummings’ conduct makes it less likely that they themselves would self-isolate for 14 days if they were told to.

Hear that? That’s the sound of the R number creeping back up, all because public health was deemed as being of less value than one man’s career.

There are lots of outlandish theories for why Cummings really went to Barnard Castle, and why the government is really so loathe to let him go. But I think the simplest explanation might be the one which fits the bill for both.

I think Dominic Cummings and his wife got ill, realised they’d have to self-isolate for 14 days, and decided that a country estate in Durham with private woods to wander around in was a more comfortable place to do it than their palatial London home.

I think they went for a very nice walk around Barnard Castle on Mary Wakefield’s birthday because they were feeling a bit better. And I think that the Prime Minister and his Cabinet are pulling out all the stops to keep Dominic Cummings in his position because they know that Boris Johnson isn’t up to the job by himself.

With, at the time of recording, 44 Conservative MPs calling on Cummings to either be sacked or to resign, and 17 more expressing criticism, “moving on” from this story is still some way away.

But Dominic Cummings wasn’t the only scandal laid bare at the Common liaison committee. There was this moment, where it became obvious that our Prime Minister was wholly unaware of one of the core elements of the hostile environment strategy:

Stephen Timms MP: They have leave to remain in the UK but no recourse to public funds. So they can’t get any help at all. Isn’t it wrong that a hard-working, law-abbiding family like that is being forced by the current arrangements into destitution?

Boris Johnson: Hang on, Stephen. Why aren’t they eligible for universal credit or employers allowance or any of the other…?

Stephen Timms MP: It’s because they have no recourse to public funds. That’s the condition that’s attached to their leave to remain. They’ve been here for years, they have children that have been born in the UK. But because of a ten year period they this no recourse to public funding. At the moment, they can’t get any help at all.

Boris Johnson: Where are they actually from?

Stephen Timms MP: The couple I’m thinking of are from Pakistan but it applies to anyone from outside of the UK.

Boris Johnson: Okay, and they can’t get furloughed? Obviously not. Well, look, I’m going to have to come back to you on that, Stephen, because clearly people who work hard for this country and who live and work here should have a support of one kind.

Boris Johnson there demonstrating he has no idea what no recourse to public funds refers to. But something which has gotten curiously little attention is Boris Johnson’s answer to whether or not someone who had gotten a negative test for coronavirus could stop self-isolating and go back to work.

The Prime Minister said no, they would have to self-isolate for the whole 14 days, as the risk of a false negative was too high – some estimates put this at 30%. So, this is a good and sensible policy – but it’s a total U-turn from what went on in March.

Despite there being indications since January on the unreliability of negative test results, it was government policy that someone could return to work immediately if they had tested negative, regardless of what symptoms they had. So, that means people who were actually infectious went back to work, all while completely confident that they couldn’t spread the virus.

It’s taken 2 months to change this policy, without a single indication from the government that they’re sorry they got it wrong in the first place. And it’s important. Because these gaps are what helped the virus tear through care homes, schools, hospitals and more, at a time where the UK was outstripping other European countries in community infections, and stubbornly refusing to get into lockdown.

It’s likely people died because of these errors: and without acknowledging the mistake, it risks people thinking a negative result is enough to end self-isolation when contact tracing is eventually up and running. It’s yet one more example of the government prioritising PR over public health, even as they immolate their approval ratings over Dominic Cummings.

Headlines today

In today’s papers, The Metro splashes “Zooming Fuming”, as their Liaison Committee coverage takes pride of place despite being written up by a 6 year old.

The FT says “Johnson brushes aside Cummings inquiry demands despite backlash”.

The Mail takes its foot off the government’s neck for one morning with “Test And Trace Revolution”.

The Times leads with “Do Your Duty And We Can Defeat Virus, Britain Told”, while The Mirror retorts “Why Don’t YOU do YOUR Duty” to Johnson and Cummings.

The Independent focuses on “No. 10’s next big test: will virus tracking work?” and The Guardian’s headline is “Tory anger at Dominic Cummings grows as 61 MPs defy Boris Johnson.”

After yesterday’s brouhaha before the liaison committee, there’s not much of note going on in parliament I’m afraid. But keep an eye on how many names from the Tory benches join the chorus of Cummings outrage – Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid are amongst the latest to demand an apology. And yesterday Boris Johnson hinted at a change to the Covid alert level – we’re currently around medium hot, but could drop into lemon and herb territory later today.

If you’re after something with a bit more of a kick, might I suggest an aubergine bhorta? Roast aubergines in the oven until they blister, scoop out the soft bits, and mash up with a little bit of cooked potato. Meanwhile, get some mustard oil going on the hob, and fry half a diced onion, ginger, and green chillies. Mix it through with the aubergine mush, stir in a teaspoon of English mustard and season with salt and pepper to taste. If you want, you could top it with some pickled red onion, and nobody would be mad at you.

I’m outta here for now, but we’ll be back with The Burner tomorrow.

You can get in touch with me on Twitter, @ayocaesar, and as ever, you can keep your questions, tips and shade coming by tweeting us @novaramedia and using the hashtag The Burner.

I’ll be on the airwaves again next week, but until then stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, don’t be a prick. I’ve been Ash Sarkar, this is The Burner.


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