Monday, May 27, 2024
HomeCOVID-19How Dominic Cummings pushed us into lockdown - Part 1

How Dominic Cummings pushed us into lockdown – Part 1


IT’S FOUR years since the dystopian nightmare of the covid lockdown befell the United Kingdom. The grossly disproportionate measure of putting the entire population under house arrest to prevent encounters with a respiratory infection appears no more rational now than it did then. In re-examining how the government arrived at this draconian decision, it is not Prime Minister Boris Johnson who emerges as the most consequential man. It is his senior adviser Dominic Cummings, and the story of how the lockdown-until-vaccine-arrives approach became official policy is a study in confirmation bias.

Cummings wrote, ‘The better educated think that psychological manipulation is something that happens to “the uneducated masses” but they are extremely deluded – in many ways people like FT pundits are much easier to manipulate, their education actually makes them more susceptible to manipulation, and historically they are the ones who fall for things like Russian fake news (cf. the Guardian and New York Times on Stalin/terror/famine in the 1930s) just as now they fall for fake news about fake news.’

Irony is dead. In the opening days of February 2020, Boris Johnson was instinctively sceptical of ‘bizarre autarkic rhetoric’ and a coronavirus panic that went ‘beyond the medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage’. It was Cummings who was susceptible to manipulation and he who fell for the faked pandemic. The lockdown was a biodefence shakedown, the final card the biodefence mafia had to play to extract lavish sums of money from governments to underwrite unneeded experimental vaccine development programmes. Cummings’s ambitions, inclinations and flaws made him an easy mark.

For years Cummings wrote disdainful screeds about what he perceived to be the failings of government. In 2014 he wrote, ‘There is a growing contempt for Westminster. Our institutions failed pre-1914, pre-1939, and with Europe. They are now failing to deal with a combination of debts, bad public services, security threats, and profound transitions in geopolitics, economics, and technology. They fail in crises because they are programmed to fail.’

He was projecting. The contempt was his own. He bridled at the constraints of working in government. As his blogs amply show, those he despised the most were judicial review and the procurement and hiring rules that impeded him in doing as he pleased.

Cummings devoted great time and effort to ruminating over a government reform programme. Brexit was meant to be the vehicle which would make it possible to implement. In 2019 he said, ‘Arguably what is happening now is a once in 50 or 100 year crisis and such crises also are the waves that can be ridden to change things normally unchangeable.’ 

It wasn’t liberating him as fully or as quickly as he’d anticipated. Then the pandemic arrived like a deusex machina. Having already diagnosed the government as failing in crises, Cummings was primed to believe everything it did was a disaster, and receptive to more radical proposals that fitted with his ultimate ambition, his pet project to create a science innovation incubator ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency) modelled on the US DARPA. Covid-19 was a once in a lifetime chance.

Cummings had two plans: the wider reform programme and an operational plan for how it should be implemented. Some elements of the first are better known than others. Cummings advocated for the following: If an unelected person was a preferred choice for a ministerial position, the solution was to stick them in the House of Lords, appoint them a Secretary of State and ideally give them rights of audience in the Commons. He wanted an American-style appointments system so that incoming governments could replace senior civil servants with, presumably more pliable, people of their own choosing. He also called for less government by truncating Whitehall functions, an end to legal relationships with the EU and ECHR, and finally he wanted No 10’s focus to be on operational planning and project management.

The operational plan called for ‘creating high performance teams to make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity’. They were to be incentivised to ‘optimise error-correction and predictive accuracy over bureaucratic process, prestige and signalling’, envisioning that this would give government immune systems’ based on decentralisation and distributed control to minimise the inevitable failures of even the best people and teams. His solutions were technocratic. He touted the benefits of exploring the science of prediction, adding a dose of ‘edge of the art’ technology and crisis management, and applied psychology.

According to Cummings, ‘training can reduce common cognitive errors and can sharply improve the quality of political predictions, hitherto characterised by great self-confidence and constant failure’.  He called for recruiting the highest IQ people along with ‘misfits and weirdos’ to government. They were to be trained in ‘the general art of thinking rationally amid uncertainty’ and, like modern-day oracles, they would become super-forecasters of success by using Tetlock checklists to check for forms of bias. Red Teaming (a war gaming technique whereby official decision making is adversarily checked and challenged) ‘where incentives are aligned to overcoming groupthink and error-correction of the most powerful’ would be legally entrenched as part of the decision making process and a Chief Rationalist – someone, he mused, like Fields Medallist Professor Tim Gowers – would be appointed to give it a final nod of approval, or not. 

Cummings explained to MPs how he came to view lockdown as the most rational course of action in March 2020. ‘My thought process was, I started getting people coming to me around the 25 February, very smart people, [on Twitter he identified Steve Hsu, an American blogger and physics professor, someone he rates as a super-forecaster] saying to me, “America is completely screwing this up. You should be really aggressive. Don’t listen to all these people saying that there’s no alternative to this. I personally am starting to take preparations. I’m buying things. We’re going to have to lockdown, etc, etc.” but the official view all the way through the first half of March, and actually into the week of 16 March, was that that would all be more dangerous.’ 

On March 3, 2020, when the UK was reporting 50 cases and no deaths from SARS-CoV-2, the Department of Health (DHSC) published a perfectly sensible plan informed by previous flu outbreaks and contingency plans. It didn’t contain Test and Trace, mass-testing, lockdowns or vaccines. It displeased Sir Jeremy Farrar, who in the wake of the Munich Security Conference (February 14-16) was fronting the global biodefence fundraising campaign. It was too calm and measured, given that days earlier he publicly called for international institutions to commit $10billion in funding for covid measures including therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, saying: ‘What we are really missing is tangible, high-level funding and support from global financial institutions including the World Bank, Regional Development Banks and the International Monetary Fund. The possible impact of this coronavirus is far beyond a health emergency – it’s a global crisis with potential to reach the scale of the global financial crisis of 2008.’

In calling it a global crisis, Farrar was engaging in a bit of super-forecasting himself. The World Health Organization didn’t declare a pandemic until March 11.

Once the DHSC plan was released, Farrar wasted no time in trying to undermine it and in agitating in the background for lockdowns. A report advocating lockdown was already on its way. A Sage modeller, Steven Riley, whose thinking was apparently influenced by his wife Michelle Heys, a clinical epidemiologist at the UCL Global Health Institute [which receives funding from the Wellcome Trust, then headed by Farrar], told Farrar on February 25 he’d taken the initiative and was writing one.

Presciently or conveniently, Riley’s report was circulated at Sage on March 10, in advance of the WHO announcement and a few days after Farrar says he received a tearful phone call from a colleague at Médecins Sans Frontières in northern Italy who said the healthcare system there was collapsing. Farrar resorted to emotional blackmail. ‘The dire situation in Northern Italy focused minds in the next Sage meeting,’ he recalled. ‘I relayed chilling reports from my contacts there. It was battlefield medicine, deciding who to save and who to leave to die. Doctors were traumatised.’

Sage and in particular Professor Neil Ferguson’s modelling are often blamed for lockdown, but Sage presents consensus views and as Cummings revealed, even on March 18 when Cummings attended Sage himself, there was no Sage consensus behind lockdown. Farrar, the consummate operative that he is, only had a handful of scientists in his corner. What got his lockdown and his vaccine taskforce over the line was Cummings and his hand-picked Red Team advisers: brothers Dr Ben Warner, the digital and data adviser at No 10, and Dr Marc Warner, the founder of the Faculty AI who was working on the NHSX data project, both of whom had worked with Cummings on Vote Leave, and Marc’s girlfriend Dr Laura Pimpin, an epidemiologist who worked for Babylon Health, a private company. It was Cummings and the Red Team influencing him who bear ultimate responsibility for pushing the lockdown panic button.

Tomorrow: The Red Team go into action

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Paula Jardine
Paula Jardine
Paula Jardine is a writer/researcher who has just completed the graduate diploma in law at ULaw. She has a history degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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