“THERE’s definitely a lot of things I could have done better over the last few months.” It is beginning to look as if this aside by the Prime Minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings during his Durham-visit apologia in the garden of 10 Downing Street on 25 May might be the extent of the Government’s admission of error for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Suggestions of an inquiry have been batted away by ministers: it is too early; it would be too distracting. A Downing Street spokesperson said last week: “In the future there will be an opportunity for us to look back, to reflect, and to learn some profound lessons. But at the moment, the most important thing to do is to focus on responding to the current situation.”
The phrase “blame game” is gaining currency. But, if it is a game, one of the most active players seems to be the Government itself. First, its target was the Civil Service in general, and Sir Mark Sedwill, its head, was eased out of office. Next came Public Health England, briefed against as being in the Prime Minister’s mind last week when he complained of the “parts of government that seemed to respond so sluggishly” to the pandemic. On Tuesday, the moving finger pointed at care homes, too many of which “didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have”. It was a crude swipe at a sector that was left largely to fend for itself. Some see the same political motivation behind the easing of the lockdown: if there is a second spike, it will be the fault not of the Government, but of those who flouted the PM’s advice not to “stuff it up”.
But, when more than 44,000 deaths have been caused, at the most conservative estimate, blame matters. When sacrifice is called for, those of whom it is required ask only two things: that it be necessary, and that there be no alternatives. Those two conditions met, humans are capable of the most extraordinary selflessness. The pandemic has thrown up millions of examples of people behaving at their very best, far outweighing those few instances of carelessness and selfishness which we have seen. But that journey by Mr Cummings indicated that, for some people at least, alternatives to a strict compliance with the restrictions did exist. One of the saddest reactions at the time was from an unnamed post, quoted by Paul Vallely (Comment, 29 May): “When Mum cried on the phone with loneliness I didn’t run to her. When she died in Ayr hospital, I wasn’t there. No, I don’t hate Cummings, I hate me.”
When someone attempts to avoid blame, it does not go away, but is too often assumed by innocents who ought not to be allowed to feel guilty. If the Government wishes to put off the day of reckoning, that is its own affair, although it should know that the period when an honest admission of mistakes might be met with understanding and absolution is passing. But attempting to deflect blame on to others is another matter entirely. Those who indulge in it should feel ashamed.