Dominic Cummings: the lies that shame Boris Johnson’s government

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Dominic Cummings: shameless

Boris Johnson’s failing government was on the ropes tonight after the prime minister’s chief adviser refused to resign after breaking England’s lockdown rules. Dominic Cummings travelled 260 miles to Durham when his wife developed COVID-19 symptoms.

The government had already been fiercely criticised for its car crash response to coronavirus – see my previous blog posts here and here.

The government’s response to Cummings’ disastrous mistake will make it far more likely that others will decide to ignore the rules. After all, if the rules don’t apply to the PM’s chief adviser, then logically they don’t apply to anyone else. It’s just the latest example of the government’s PR own goals. And on the day that The Times published an editorial asking ‘Where is Boris Johnson?”:

“The government is … paying the penalty for its poor communications. This risks undermining public confidence at a vital stage in the fight against the pandemic. For this much of the blame lies with Mr Johnson. It is the prime minister’s job to provide leadership. Yet he has been largely missing in action and not only when he was in hospital. Since his televised address two weeks ago, he has made one statement to the House of Commons, which remarkably was his first since the crisis began, and he has turned up twice to prime minister’s questions. Apart from that he has attended no press conferences and given no interviews. Instead he has left the communication of public policy to a succession of ministers, whose uneven performances have often added to the confusion.”

It was pitiful tonight to see an array of cabinet ministers sycophantically tweeting support for Cummings:

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It is beneath contempt to claim that criticising an unelected official for breaking the law is politicising the matter. Cummings will surely be gone in 48 hours.

Cummings has been regarded as a political and communications genius by many after his role campaigning for Britain to leave the EU. It is clear tonight that his reputation as a messiah has been overstated. In reality, he’s just a very naughty boy.

Covid carelessness: UK government’s PR failures continue

I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.

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False hopes

These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.

Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:

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How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.

Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:

“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:

“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”

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Wales takes the lead

It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.

As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.

Testing, testing

It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.

The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.

Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.

Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:

“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”

VE Day, 75 years on

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My grandfather at a Penarth street party, VE Day 1945

Today, Britain marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe, VE Day. It was a muted occasion, held in the shadow of coronavirus and in the grip of lockdown.

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The 75th anniversary was more muted

True, the BBC replayed Churchill’s broadcast from 1945. And the Queen will broadcast to the nation at the same time as her father George VI spoke to the Commonwealth in 1945. (The Queen pitched it perfectly as always.) Broadcasters will offer a tired selection of wartime films.

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Chalfont St Giles, Bucks: a coronavirus-closed pub marks VE Day 75

In a curious way, perhaps this was an appropriate way to mark the occasion. It is time for Britain to look to the future, rather than continually harking back to those six years, critical though they were. We will always remember those who sacrificed their lives. I will always be fascinated by histories of those critical years. (I highly recommend James Holland’s War in the West series.) But perhaps we will now set aside these huge anniversary commemorations (apart from the 75th anniversary of VJ Day this August) until the centenaries from 2039 to 2045.

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Victory: Churchill about to address the nation

On VE Day, Churchill in his broadcast said, “We may allow ourselves a brief period of jubilation”. On the 40th anniversary in 1985, I contrasted that sober comment with the enormously hyped BBC coverage of the anniversary. It felt then as if the jubilation had never ended. Perhaps now we can built a better, more equal world, just as the people of Britain yearned for one in 1945 as they rejected Churchill’s Conservatives and gave Labour a landslide victory two months later. The NHS, the subject of 2020’s adoration, was the result of that peaceful revolution.

Churchill added in his broadcast: “Let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie ahead”. Few on 8 May 1945 would have taken notice of that cautionary note in their huge relief that the war, in Europe at least, was over.

2020: an Easter like no other

There’s never been an Easter like it. All the churches in Britain were closed, and family parties, day trips and holidays cancelled. Beaches and parks that would have been packed on every other sunny, hot bank holiday were this year deserted.

Priests tended to their congregations in new ways. My great friend Anthony Beer is priest at Laleston and Merthyr Mawr near Bridgend in South Wales. This Easter Anthony held Eucharist on Easter Day in the vicarage garden – as you can tell from the photo on the left, it was a very different congregation this year. (By contrast, one Easter at nearby Wick Anthony brought two lambs to church on Easter Day, as seen in the second photo!) Anthony like so many other priests is ministering to his flock by phone, email and social media.

As Anthony remarked, the Easter story is of being transported from sadness and darkness to joy and happiness. Millions around the world will have prayed and hoped for happier times around the corner.

What a contrast to Easter 2019. A year ago, we were staying in my hometown, Cardiff. On Easter Day, I cycled to our favourite Welsh beach, Dunraven, Southerndown. It was a gorgeous spring day, much like this year’s Easter weather, and I revelled in exploring familiar countryside by bike not car. I even discovered an abandoned pub, the Cross Inn near Llantrithyd, which closed in 1939 after 239 years.

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Easter Day 2019

I close this post with a photo that captured that joy of the setting of the sun after a beautiful day. This classic E Type Jaguar was parked outside my father’s then home on the Esplanade, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan. Presumably this Easter this lovely car was standing silently at home, waiting for life to return to normal.

As Anthony remarked on Easter Day 2020, the Easter story transports us from sadness and darkness to joy and happiness. Millions around the world will be hoping and praying that happier times are around the corner.

Coronavirus: a spring like no other

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They called 1940 ‘the Spitfire summer’. It was one of the finest summers of the 20th century. The endless dry, sunny days and azure skies provided a vivid backdrop to the Battle of Britain. Some seasons in history provide a stark contrast between nature and reality.

Spring 2020 is proving similarly contrasting. The coronavirus lockdown is taking place during possibly the most vivid British spring of the 21st century.

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I have relished this extraordinary spring during my lockdown bike rides from home in Buckinghamshire. Today, I marvelled at the glorious birdsong as I made my way to Burnham Beeches, including the call of the majestic red kite. As I skirted the beeches, one red kite swooped down barely 10 feet away from me. He landed on a tree by the side of the road, thought better of it and flew off, those immense wings giving him lift. Burnham Beeches is a historic area of Buckinghamshire woodland owned by the Corporation of London. It’s the closest I’ll get to London for some time…

6F2E8B0F-6824-45B2-9B78-137796AE013CYesterday, I was thrilled as confetti-like blossom blew in the warm wind across the country lane in my path. These natural delights soften the pain of lockdown, and give an intense taste of life renewing as well as fading; a high note of joy to lift us from the daily tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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No one’s London-bound: the M40/M25 junction

The lockdown has emptied our fume-fuelled motorways and roads. Today, I cycled past the M40/M25 junction, above. How many times have I waited patiently in the rush hour on the slip road on the left to join the M25? Today, Easter Saturday, it was deserted. No one was hurrying to Heathrow or London. Birdsong ruled.

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A silent Good Friday, Cliveden, Bucks

On my Good Friday bike ride yesterday, I paused to reflect on this stunning explosion of blossom at the pub opposite the entrance to the National Trust’s Cliveden estate. I love my rides to Cliveden for tea and cake on a weekend afternoon; that pleasure will have to wait. It is sad to see so many fine town and country pubs closed and quiet. Let us hope that they will reopen when the pandemic is under control.

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Camper vans: a home from home

Karen and I both saw Volkswagen camper vans on our respective exercise sessions today. These classic campers inspire an idea of freedom and the open road. For now, that idea is just a dream. The campers are on the drive, rather than the upland roads and sun-kissed beaches of Great Britain and beyond. Their moment – our moment – will return. For now, let us enjoy this spring san pareil. It’s our equivalent of that Spitfire summer as history is made as nature unfolds.

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Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?

 

Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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Coronavirus: my 93 year old father praises care workers on UK national TV

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I was a very proud son today. My 93 year old father Bob Skinner appeared on prime time national TV to praise the care home staff who are making his life comfortable and happy despite being ‘locked down’ for a couple of weeks as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Dad was interviewed live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain breakfast show. He explained how the carers at Sunrise of Cardiff have provided exceptional care, despite the challenges they themselves have faced during the pandemic. Bob described how he couldn’t have been luckier to be at his Sunrise home, thanks to the exceptional care from staff who, he said, have become friends. “I couldn’t praise them high enough,” he said. “I’ve even learned to play bingo!”

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COVID-19: how Brunel inspired NHS Nightingale Hospital

 

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Isambard Kingdom Brunel. By Robert Howlett, via Wikimedia Commons

Britain has been very impressed by the achievement of turning London’s ExCel conference centre into an emergency NHS coronavirus hospital, named after Florence Nightingale. Yet few realise that the Nightingale NHS Hospital London project follows the example of Isambard Kingdom Brunel over 160 years ago.

Brunel was the most flamboyant engineer of Victorian Britain. Most famous for his elegant railways, soaring bridges and pioneering steamships, he also designed a hospital in just six days during the Crimean War in 1855.

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Coronavirus: my working from home tips

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Above: ready to start another day

For millions of people, home is now the office. The days of commuting are over. Welcome to working from home.

Some of us have been doing this for years, although in my case just a day or two a week. COVID-19 has made it permanent – for now.

It’s a very big change, and we shouldn’t assume that the switch to home working is just using your laptop on your kitchen table rather than the office desk. Here are my top tips for effective home working.

Create a suitable home office

Find a suitable quiet spot to work. (Obviously this is easier in a large house than a bedsit.) Ideally this will be a room with a decent work surface, such as a desk or table, and where you can shut out any distractions of home life.

If you share your home with others, make sure they understand that just because you’re at home doesn’t mean you are free to play. (Though this is easier with adults than small children!) Unless you have the whole place to yourself, you might want to wear headphones to avoid that conference call booming across your home.

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COVID-19 lockdown: common sense needed from police and public

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Derbyshire police: droning on

Derbyshire Constabulary had the bright idea of producing a video to persuade the public to stay away from the Peak District during the COVID-19 pandemic. They took footage from a drone showing people walking their dogs in this beautiful part of England, highlighting what they said was non-essential activity.

It’s a clever campaign and an example for the UK government, whose communications have been poor at best during the greatest health crisis for a century.

Unfortunately, though, Derbyshire Constabulary’s interpretation of the UK government’s COVID-19 regulations has been, to quote from the Constable Savage sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News, overzealous. There’s no ban on using the car to get to the start of your dog walk. That drive may avoid walking in busy crowds. 

Let’s hope Derbyshire police are as vigilant against burglars as they are against people walking their dogs.

A difficult balance

The police do have a difficult challenge. Last weekend, the country was horrified by images of crowds of people flocking to Snowdonia, the Peak District and other national parks. Rural communities aren’t equipped to cope with hordes of people needing treatment for COVID-19. It’s right to stop people from London piling into a camper van and heading for Wales, Scotland and the Peak District. But policing in Great Britain relies on consent. And here Derbyshire went beyond what the regulations actually said. This tweet from @iaincollins sums it up well:

Bang to rights?

Overstepping the mark like this risks losing public support for the critical need for measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. As former government minister David Gauke said on Twitter:

“This is badly misjudged. People should maintain social distancing, which is what these people are doing. We need to maintain public support for fundamental behaviour change which requires the authorities to focus on genuinely bad behaviour.

It goes without saying that the public needs to take act sensibly. Those crowds last weekend shocked many. No sensible person would drive hundreds of miles in a camper van during the crisis. If we don’t all act responsibly, we will all suffer from stricter controls. We may lose the right to go for that bike ride or run. That would be a dark day.