The last threads of trust in this Government’s coronavirus response finally snapped on Sunday night when Boris Johnson stood in Downing Street and said Dominic Cummings had acted ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’ when he ignored the lockdown to travel 260 miles to his parents’ home.
There can rarely have been three words so ill-judged and that have done such damage.
It is trust which has led millions of people to follow government instructions despite the death of more than 37,000 of their fellow citizens from this virus; it is trust which has made people stay at home and self-isolate when they have shown symptoms, regardless of the difficulties that has placed them in; it is trust which has made people stay away from their loved ones, even when they were dying, because that is what they were told to do.
That trust is now in danger of being shattered because of the actions of one man, and the failure of his boss to reprimand him, let alone sack him.
Dominic Cummings, the prime minister said, had merely been ‘following his instincts’.
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These presumably are the same instincts which make people want to hug their grandchild, to rush to the side of those who are grieving, to come together with friends to celebrate birthdays, weddings or anniversaries. We have all had to suppress those instincts for months in order to protect public health.
And now we’re told it was acceptable for Dominic Cummings to act on his.
I have rarely seen such anger erupt across the country. My inbox, and those of many other MPs, has filled up with heart-breaking stories from people who denied themselves a visit to a dying parent, who have stayed at home trying to care for a severely disabled child, because they were told it was the right – and necessary – thing to do.
Instead of making all those sacrifices over the past months, people are now learning that they could have just ‘followed their instincts’.
It’s hard to over-state the damage done. As one of the Government’s own scientific advisers, Stephen Reichner, tweeted over the weekend, all the advice they had given about how to build trust and secure adherence to the measures necessary to control coronavirus has been trashed.
‘Be open and honest, we said – trashed. Respect the public, we said – trashed. Ensure equity so everyone is treated the same, we said – trashed. Be consistent, we said – trashed.’
This matters not just because of the hypocrisy, the ‘one rule for us, another for everyone else’ message it sends out. It matters because the next stage of the Government’s strategy to tackle coronavirus depends on people’s trust.
Teachers will only return to school, and parents send their children into class, when they trust that it is safe. The test, trace and isolate system, which is belatedly being put in place to control the virus when lockdown measures are lifted, again depends on trust.
How can we expect people to co-operate with this system if they think it is one rule for them and another for those in power? The response to any instruction to stay at home or avoid any social gathering is now likely to be ‘Why should I?’
When you see the huge crowds who flocked to beaches and beauty spots over the weekend, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the dam gates have burst, and it will be impossible to reinstate them.
The Government’s handling of coronavirus has been a disaster on so many levels. But the one thing that has been effective, up to now, has been people’s readiness to make sacrifices in their own lives to protect the most vulnerable and save others.
The co-operation and mutual support has been incredibly moving and uplifting because it has shown us who we really are. Not a collection of selfish, competitive, mistrusting individuals but a society with a deep-rooted sense of community and solidarity.
These are powerful social bonds that bring us together and make our lives worth living. They also give me hope that we can overcome the many crises we face, by acting in unison.
That this could be put at risk by one man’s disdain for the rules that so many others have followed, and the prime minister’s failure to grasp why it matters, fills me with anger and despair.
As a nation we deserve principled, positive and compassionate leadership – especially during this crisis. There’s no sign of it in Downing Street.
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Source: Metro News UK