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It’s barely three weeks since Dominic Cummings gave his evidence to MPs, yet it already feels like a long time ago. Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser may have electrified Westminster but he left the public just shrugging its shoulders in contempt, leaving barely a trace.
Still, Cummings’ real impact may have been in highlighting the need for the PM to be extra-cautious about Covid, heeding the warning signs when case numbers spike and forcing him to really listen to his medical and scientific advisers.
We also have Cummings’ testimony to thank for getting on record Johnson’s frustration last autumn that he hadn’t acted more like “the Mayor from Jaws”. And today, Labour pounced on that phrase to ram home what it thinks is one of his biggest blunders of the pandemic: not closing the borders to India.
In possibly his best speech since taking the job of shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds said that the 14 day delay in putting India on the “red list” was a “fortnight of failure” driven by Johnson’s desire to have a photo-op with Narendra Modi. It was not the India variant, nor the Delta variant, but “the Johnson variant”.
Moreover, Thomas-Symonds said Johnson’s Jaws mayor tribute act had had tragic consequences with “British people..attacked in their thousands” by the shark of Covid. He even conjured up the image of Keir Starmer as police chief Martin Brody from that same movie: “eyes on the shark, doing everything to keep people safe”.
Some in Labour have been pushing hard for months to ram home this attack line about the need for tighter borders. It turns Johnson’s “take back control” Brexit mantra into a judo throw aimed at knocking him off his balance. Allied with more state funded support for the aviation and travel industry, it is at least a coherent strategy and one that anticipated imports like the Delta variant.
Though it avoids the “hindsight” charge, there are pitfalls. One risk is that Labour can appear to be banking on the virus outpacing the vaccines in coming weeks, in the hope of proving itself right about Johnson’s border failure. Without careful handling, that could turn out to be an even worse look than an opposition which relies on increases in unemployment to win power.
Then again, as I mentioned last night, there is a real risk entailed in the PM claiming July 19 is a “terminus” date. Michael Gove highlighted the implicit logic of that approach this morning when he refused to deny that hundreds of deaths would now be tolerated once the final unlocking happens.
“Hundreds” is of course much less than the “thousands” (or “tens of thousands” the PM referred to at one point yesterday) that would have died if the June 21 unlocking had gone ahead. Yet the Sage papers released on Monday night made for grim reading. Even with a five-week delay, one model estimates between 31,200 and 62,900 extra deaths by December 31.
Those death numbers are much, much higher than the worst winter flu outbreaks, even though that’s the comparison increasingly made by ministers. On ConHome’s Moggcast, Jacob Rees-Mogg said “you can’t run society just to stop the hospitals being full”, but he also said deaths were the key metric - and on this measure the Indian variant could yet wreak havoc.
Rees-Mogg has proved he has more lives than Gavin Williamson in his current post and that may in part be because he reflects the lockdown sceptic views of some backbenchers. The PM too is more of a Mayor Vaughn than a Chief Brody. He is clearly braced for more fatalities, the question remains just how many he will tolerate, and whether he will tell us what the number is.
But just how many excess deaths will the public tolerate? The phrase you’ll hear in coming weeks is that we all have to “learn to live with” Covid. For the families of those who fall prey to this awful virus, that may sound like learning to die with Covid. And even Boris Johnson’s famed political skills may have trouble with that soundbite.