Seventy days of lockdown, and Dominic Cummings

Ten weeks ago today, the Brussels St Patrick's Day reception was due to take place in the BOZAR. It's always a grand occasion, and this time was going to be particularly special; the evening was not only a celebration of Ireland's national day, but also a farewell to the Irish ambassador to the EU, Declan Kelleher, who played a key if under-reported role in ensuring that Dublin and Brussels remained tightly connected during the Brexit negotiations. Of course, there was no reception.

We've been thinking about the last bits of normality before it all hit. My last international travel was a visit to London at the end of February, finishing with a birthday party in Cambridge on the 29th and coming home on 1st March. This is surely the first time that I have spent thirteen consecutive weeks in Belgium since we moved here in 1999. (I don't think it will be another thirteen – but it may be another four or five.) The last reception I attended was the opening of an exhibition about the Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter on Wednesday 4 March. (It's open again, if you want to go – rather good, I thought.) My last networking lunch was with a former Swiss ambassador on Friday 13 March. (An inauspicious date!) On 17 March, the last full day in the office, eight of our usual complement of forty-something were in, and we ordered a socially distant lunch. (I note that the seven colleagues in the picture below are from seven different countries, and none shares a nationality with me.)

The numbers are subsiding slowly. I noted ten days ago that the number of patients in hospitals and in intensive care were about halfway between those for 22 and 23 March. Today's numbers are just below those for 21 March. So we are heading in the right direction, but slowly – it seems to take five or six days to make up for each day of the initial surge (and of course we're now at the equivalent of the point where that surge was going really fast). Cafes and restaurants will be able to open next week, but it's not clear that it will be worth their while. Hairdressers opened last week, and I took advantage:

The issue of the day is, of course, Dominic Cummings. I will be clear – I despise the man and everything he stands for. This is the person who sabotaged Britain's participation in the largest peace project in history, and thought nothing of colluding in wicked lies in the process (the claim that the UK paid the EU £350 million a week, and the further claim that this money would go to the National Health Service if the country voted for Brexit). I wish him nothing but failure in his political career and ambitions.

It is however impossible to read his full statement and not feel some sympathy for someone in a high-pressure job facing a family crisis. Even so, it's not good enough. Most of Western Europe had to deal with lockdown, and most of us did so by respecting what we thought were the rules. We just received a note from the home where our daughters live to say that normal visiting will remain impossible until further notice. (That’s been the case since 13 March). Our experience is sad but not as awful as many others have gone through.

British senior scientific advisers Neil Ferguson and Catherine Calderwood were forced to resign for what on the face of it were rather less egregious violations of the UK's "Stay home" mantra than Cummings’ driving 425 km to Durham (and then back again to London). And his admission that he decided to test his own eyesight by getting into his car and driving another 100 km from Durham to Barnard Castle and back is, well, startling and not exactly in line with the usual guidance about eyesight and driving. Many people made agonising personal sacrifices for the greater good, and they now see Cummings having breached the spirit of the rules, and probably the letter as well, and getting away with it.

(This is much less important in the scheme of things, but Cummings also appears to have edited his own past blog entries to look as if he was more prescient about pandemics than he actually was.)

The Spectator is keeping a running tally of Conservative MPs who have called for Cummings to resign or be sacked; you can add the Chief Executive of blog site Conservative Home to the list. These are not the usual bunch of people like me who already hated Cummings’ politics. The government is visibly spinning desperately to control the damage.

This feels like an inflection point. John Major’s government was holed below the waterline by Black Wednesday in 1992, five months and seven days after he won a general election. It is five months and fourteen days today since the 2019 election. History never exactly repeats itself, but past events are often the best guidance to what will happen next.

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