As I See It: Terry Murden
It has become a daily routine for government ministers to thank the British public for staying home (or alert) in order to save lives and protect the NHS. The transgressors have been urged to fall into line, or face financial penalties. Unless, of course, you happen to be a government adviser.
Two – one in Scotland, the other in London – quit soon after their failure to follow their own advice was uncovered (though neither was fined). The third – Downing Street’s top aide Dominic Cummings – remains adamant he has done nothing wrong by visiting his parents in Durham against what most regard as a clear breach of the coronavirus guidelines.
His denial and show of arrogance outside his London home, together with the squirming defence put up by various government ministers, was bad enough. Now it has emerged that there was a second journey. This was a classic media tactic: weaken the foe with an initial revelation, await a response, then go in for the kill with further evidence. Number 10 and Mr Cummings’ circle of apologists had already used up their excuses. The gun barrel was empty.
In any case, we have already gone beyond arguing over the finer points of the guidelines and how they should be interpreted. Soon after the story broke in a joint sting by the Daily Mirror and The Guardian on Friday evening the baton passed to social media and online where the public had their say. Thousands took to Twitter to fulminate over what they viewed as an exercise in rank hypocrisy.
Whatever explanations were offered by those trying to save Mr Cummings, the public were having not of it, and the target was moving towards the Prime Minister himself and his senior Cabinet members whose every utterance further damaged their credibility.
The fall-out could be catastrophic for the lockdown campaign. Those who headed for the beaches and the parks during last week’s hot spell are likely to be mere foot soldiers in a growing rebellion as the public take matters into their own hands. It is not that people do not want to support the NHS, or the elderly, or themselves, from a deadly virus. Simply that they feel betrayed by those in which they put their trust. The daily briefings risk no longer being taken seriously, the advice regarded as something to consider, rather than an instruction to follow.
When Nicola Sturgeon faced similar charges made against her chief medical officer she too tried to defend her actions. Scotland’s First Minister saved herself by quickly realising the error in trying to defend the indefensible, but just as importantly, acknowledging that prolonging the argument would undermine trust in her own judgement.
Boris Johnson is failing to do this and has let himself become a target. The arguments over guidelines were lost by the time the story was published on Saturday morning. By then the Prime Minister should have removed Mr Cummings, or at least suspended him pending further investigation. By not doing this Mr Johnson has left himself exposed to ridicule and anger by a public who feel they have been treated with contempt.