Imagine for a moment that the year is 2022 and Dominic Cummings is giving evidence to MPs about the controversial events of nine months earlier.
A new Covid variant was taking hold in Britain back in that rain-sodden month of May 2021. Case numbers were rising, but hospitalisations and deaths were not. Scientists were urging Boris Johnson to play it safe and extend restrictions, businesses were screaming for normality to return.
For the 2022 version of Mr Cummings, the right decision was no doubt staring Mr Johnson in the face. So simple! So obvious!
Except that May 2021 is where we all are right now, and the right way forward is not obvious at all. Open up, and deaths might rise, costing lives that could have been saved. Delay “freedom day” and businesses might go to the wall needlessly. Only after the decision has been made will Mr Johnson know if he got it right.
Which is exactly where he was in September last year. Mr Cummings’ portrayal on Wednesday of a Prime Minister who turned his back on reason, choosing to “hit and hope” rather than following irrefutable evidence, was a form of revisionism, according to those who lived through the frenetic late summer weeks in Government.
Then, as now, it was not at all clear which way the virus was going to go. Then, as now, conflicting predictions and advice were landing on the Prime Minister’s desk. But then, unlike now, it was unclear when or even if a vaccine would be available, and in what quantities.
Someone was going to turn out to be right and someone was going to turn out to be wrong, but, crucially, they could not know they were right, because they were guessing, a point which was lost on Mr Cummings when he accused Mr Johnson of being unfit for office.
Dominic Cummings condemned Boris Johnson's handling of the Covid pandemic when he appeared before a Common's select committee earlier this week
“By September we had the basics of an early warning system,” said one person at the heart of the Covid response at the time. “It did start to ring alarm bells but it was far from clear-cut. It certainly wasn’t a slam dunk that we had to lock down, no matter what Dominic Cummings might say.
“Dom has tried to portray himself as a one-man army fighting for a second lockdown, but that’s not how it was at all. Everyone was wrestling with questions like, would people accept another lockdown, how strict it would need to be, and whether we could get through the autumn without one.
“With hindsight you can argue that we should have locked down earlier than we did, but it’s incredibly unfair to say it was blindingly obvious. It simply wasn’t. We are in the same situation now. We have a new variant, we still don’t know much about it, and it’s not at all obvious what we should do.”
The facts last September were that cases were beginning to rise but they were rising at a more gradual rate than in the first wave of coronavirus.
Sir Patrick Vallance told Mr Johnson that if he did nothing, cases could rise to 50,000 a day. By the end of October cases were continuing to rise, but at nothing like the rate Sir Patrick had suggested, partly because of restrictions such as the rule of six and pub curfews.
Mr Cummings likes to cite modelling which predicted catastrophe as evidence that Mr Johnson should have acted quicker, but Mr Johnson was well aware, as he is now, that models frequently, if not always, wildly overestimate case numbers and deaths. As recently as March, scientific advisers were stating as a fact that reopening schools would lead to a third wave of Covid, which turned out to be completely wrong.
Mr Cummings supposed "Plan B" on a white board in Downing Street
Mr Cummings also made great play of the fact that he had “warnings” about variants in September from scientists who told him “watch out for this variant, it could get very nasty”.
The clear implication was that Mr Johnson turned a blind eye to the Kent variant, which later became dominant, in his determination to be “the mayor from Jaws” who prioritised the economy of Amity island in refusing to close the beaches.
But the facts tell a different story. Public Health England did not detect the first case of the Kent variant until Oct 1. Mr Cummings’ evidence that he was told to watch out for “this variant” in September cannot, then, be right.
It was only on December 18 that it was flagged as a variant of concern, and the following day the Prime Minister called a press conference to cancel Christmas.
The data from September also jars with Mr Cummings’ account. Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, and Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, were calling for a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown in mid-September, and Mr Cummings claims “all credible serious people in my opinion were saying essentially the same thing”.
At that point case numbers, having risen slowly from a midsummer low, had flattened; it was only in late September that they began to rise steeply, and even then the rise was being driven by infections among under-30s, whose risk from Covid is extremely low.
One of the most telling moments in Mr Cummings’ evidence was when he told the committee that in September he had been “looking back over the whole thing and doing a kind of scorecard of who’s been right about this and who’s been wrong?”. It not only assumes that people who have been right in the past will always be right in the future, but also illustrates the binary nature of Mr Cummings’ attitude to governing.
“One of the problems with Dom is that he sees the world like a Punch and Judy show, where there has to be a hero and there has to be a villain,” said one person who attended multiple meetings with him. “There has to be someone who has failed. But the reality is a lot more nuanced than that.”