Last week, the UK government announced that it was starting a Track and Trace system, albeit without the app that was earlier seen as integral to the system. This system relies largely on people’s sense of civic duty, since the idea is that someone has COVID, everyone that person has been in contact with is notified and is supposed to self-isolate to two weeks. Never mind that without the app, the only people who will be notified will be friends of the person who tested positive, since there’s no way to know who sat next to you on the tube for 20 minutes or who stood next to you in the vegetable aisle at Sainsburys for longer than the 15-minute window. The people who are notified are then asked to self-isolate for 2 weeks, which is rather a big “ask” for people who just started working again, so that’s where confidence in the system and the government comes in. Then stories about problems with training and the program interviewers were using started to appear. I’d actually seen the ad for interviewers, too, and thought it would be a good way to help out. I would even do it as a volunteer for a few hours a week. I have friends who said the same thing. When I called, I was told it was £9 an hour, not £10, but the rest, including the way the group training was explained, was the same. The problem was that they were only taking full-time workers. You had to commit to at least 40 hours a week, with the chance of some overtime, in order to be considered for the job. This already seemed like it might be a problem. People who were likely to need a job like that were also the least likely to have any experience that would allow them to do the job well. As it turns out, the competence of the staff was the least of the problems. If the account above is true, we are wasting money and getting nothing for it, but I guess Health Secretary Matt Hancock can say all those people were ready to perform this important job. That is exactly what he did say in this interview with Kay Burley, which took place on the same day that trainees were sitting in chat rooms, being paid but not being trained:
He also “explained” why the app was absolutely essential but the program was being launched without it.
It is when Dominic Cummings is mentioned that Hancock goes from being a bad explainer of the inexplicable to a desperate schoolboy hoping that if he laughs at the interviewer’s insinuation it will all just go away. For the Americans who have had too much on their plates right now to pay attention to British political scandals, Dominic Cummings is Boris Johnson’s senior advisor and the man generally thought to be the architect of the UK’s COVID-19 approach, including the rules around the lockdown. On March 30, when no one was supposed to be travelling from their homes to anywhere other than their place of (essential) work, Cummings travelled with his wife and young child about 260 miles, or the length of the country, to Durham from London. He did this after both he and his wife exhibited symptoms of COVID-19, and after Johnson and Matt Hancock, with whom Cummings had been in close proximity, tested positive for the virus. This was a breach of several rules that were in force at the time: 1) If you have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Coronavirus, your entire household must remain at home for 14 days; 2) If you or any member of your family exhibits symptoms of Coronavirus, self-isolate for 14 days. 3) Children should not be left with older grandparents or older relatives who are more vulnerable to the illness; 4) People must remain “in their primary residence” because “not taking these steps puts additional pressure on communities and services that are already at risk…Leaving your home – the place you live – to stay at another home is not allowed.” When the revelations about Cummings’s trip became public on May 22, his justification was that if both he and his wife got sick, there would be no one to care for their young child. This, of course, angered people who had had to scramble to make their own childcare plans, since they were not supposed to be in contact with their parents. It also angered people who’d wanted to leave congested cities for their holiday homes but had followed the rules and stayed in their primary residences. Indeed, on April 6, Catherine Calderwood, the Scottish Health Minister, was forced to resign after it was discovered that she and her family had travelled from Edinburgh to Fife, a little more than an hour’s ride, to their second home and had been cited by police or breaking the lockdown. She did so because she did not want her behavior to become a distraction. And she apologized for that behavior. Cummings, in contrast, neither resigned nor apologized. A story surfaced of a family trip to Barnard Castle, about 30 miles away. Representatives of the government, like the Transportation Secretary Grant Shapps, implied that these stories were false, and the government said no more about it—until the Durham police fought back and Cummings realized that the story would come out. He finally gave a press conference, to try to put the story to bed, on May 26:
It’s an hour long, so you may not want to watch it. Suffice it to say he did not apologize. He stuck to his story about the reason for his trip to Durham and said he believed he acted reasonably. In the days since that story had broken, Cummings’s supporters started to discuss his son’s “special needs” and suggest these were extraordinary circumstances. Let’s say this is true, and let’s say that their trip to Durham may have been misguided, but was genuinely motivated by fear that their child would not have anyone equipped to care for him. Had he apologized, that might have been excusable and they may have been able to draw a line under the issue. The second trip, a round-trip with the entire family, is the one that remains the real problem. First, his reason for it is ludicrous: He was “testing his eyesight,” because since his initial COVID symptoms, he’d had some weird visual disturbances and wanted to make sure he could drive back to London. The excuse has spawned many jokes (like the Dailymash headline below) and has kept the whole episode in the public eye.
Why does it matter? Because we are starting to come out of lockdown, and as Matt Hancock said in his interview, the government is relying on the good sense and sense of civic duty of the British people. People are sick of being locked down. And we have had the sunniest May on record. We’ve seen pictures of the beaches:
I’ve seen very few people in London with masks on, and quite a few not practicing social distancing. One local park has put in a one-way system to allow people to walk on a narrow path. When I tried to follow the rules, more people were walking towards me than in my direction.
Obviously, these people were not following the rules before Dominic Cummings’s flouting them became public knowledge. But I did see a man being interviewed at one of the beaches who used Cummings’s behavior as an excuse. And there probably are a lot of generally younger people who haven’t known anyone who was badly affected and were already on the fence about following the guidelines. Now they may be thinking that a few broken rules can’t be that serious if Cummings could do it with no consequences. There were also people who make far less than Cummings who were fined for breaking the rules and driving places. Now some people are demanding that all those fines be reviewed.
Going forward, we need a working track and trace system, a clear set of guidelines that lay out consequences for not following them (even if they are still voluntary, maybe a consequence could be “if we don’t do this now and the numbers go up, we’ll have to go back to a mandatory lockdown”), and a government that we believe when they speak. Right now, we don’t have any of those. The British have the advantage over the Americans of not also having a huge faction of people who see any attempt to make people safer as an infringement of their rights. People are more lazy and sick of the lockdown than they are paranoid or politically resistant. But the result is the same. The UK still has a rate of infection high enough that countries like Greece, who did a better job fighting the virus earlier on, are now talking about banning UK citizens from travelling to Greece when their tourism reopens. And there’s no indication that it’s going to get better soon, or that the Isle of Wight app will work, or that people will continue to follow rules made by a government whose representatives are not following them—and sometimes don’t even seem to understand them.