Andy Cowper: The public health of politics and the politics of public health

A global pandemic of a potentially fatal respiratory disease is probably the worst time for politics and public health to collide. In the political dance of covid-19, we have seen elaborate political lip service paid by the UK Government: their segue from to “following the science” into “guided by the science” should tend to make their scientific advisers nervous.

They have good cause to be nervous, as we see from the bizarre events of this last week regarding the prime minister’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

Newspaper reports from last weekend revealed that Cummings blatantly and repeatedly ignored the Government’s “stay at home” advice (which, sitting in on meetings of the SAGE advisory group, he helped to craft): firstly by going back to work at Downing Street following contact with his apparently covid-19-symptomatic wife; secondly by then driving 260 miles to Durham with his wife and child, to self-isolate in a cottage on his family’s estate; and thirdly, by going for a half-hour drive on his wife’s birthday to local beauty spot Barnard Castle, on the pretext of checking that his self-reportedly impaired vision was going to be fine for him to drive back to London.

Cummings then went on television for an hour on Monday (half an hour later than the scheduled time) to read out a legally-scripted explanation of his actions, seeking justification in exemptions that were made for people at risk of domestic violence, and offered absolutely no apology.

If this had been written as a plot outline for the BBC’s political satire “The Thick Of It”, it would have been rejected as too implausible and over-the-top. Cummings has been defended to the hilt by the prime minister and most of the Cabinet, although it is interesting that a significant number of Conservative MPs have condemned his actions, with some calling for his resignation or dismissal.

Cummings, not goings

Cummings would make a fascinating psychological case study. He has been a successful campaigner, driving both the Brexit vote for the 2016 Vote Leave campaign and overseeing the successful Conservative 2019 General Election campaign. He is confrontational, unconventional, and uncompromising. He enjoys and plays up to his high profile.

Yet, what some have seen as Cummings’ populist genius for matching or moulding the national mood appears to have vanished in a puff of three-word-slogan smoke. Opinion polls show that there has been an immediate negative impact on the popularity of both the Conservative government and Boris Johnson.

Now Johnson has gone further. In Thursday’s daily covid-19 live televised briefing, he refused to let chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance answer a journalist’s question as to what they thought of Cummings’ actions.

The PM said, “I’m going to interpose myself, if I may, and protect them from what would be an unfair and unnecessary attempt to ask a political question. It’s very, very important our medical officers and scientific advisers do not get dragged into what most people would recognise as fundamentally a political argument”.

For the PM to describe this as political is either terrifyingly ignorant of public health basics, or cynical beyond belief.

It also puts the Government’s chief medical and scientific advisers in a profoundly invidious position.

Cummings’ choices (to make unnecessary journeys while he was infected with covid-19, after travelling from high-infection London to low-infection Durham, which Durham police confirmed breached lockdown rules, and to repeatedly demonstrate that he will not apologise) could damage public trust in Government advice as the lockdown is gradually eased.

This is not a political issue: it is a public health issue.

And falling on the day of the tenth and final 8 pm “clap for our carers” national event, it sends healthcare workers an unambiguous signal: the prime minister is desperate to keep his chief adviser, and will stop at literally nothing to do so.

Johnson may be the prime minister in name, but Cummings is in charge.

See also: Questions of conscience and duty for scientific advisers

Andy Cowper is a freelance journalist and editor of Health Policy Insight.

Competing interests: None declared.