The Prime Minister’s most senior aide Dominic Cummings drove over 250 miles to Durham in March to isolate with his wife Mary Wakefield and their child at a cottage on his father’s privately owned farm, the country’s lockdown notwithstanding.
In his anticlimactic address on Monday night, Cummings claimed that he and his wife made this trip because they were both suffering from coronavirus symptoms and were concerned that their conditions might take a turn for the worst and prevent them from being able to care for their child. Revelations of this apparent transgression led to swathes of the public spewing their sanctimonious bile out into the Twittersphere and many, including Conservative MP Steve Baker, demanded Cummings’ resignation.
Curiously, a common point of contention seemed to be, as Beth Rigby bullishly and indignantly reminded us all, that thousands of others have made painful sacrifices in their adherence to the letter of the lockdown, with some even having to forgo saying goodbye to their elderly and dying parents.
The problem with this sort of argument is that it makes a comparison between two very different circumstances but treats them as though they were identical. The key difference between Cummings’ actions and a final visit to a relative on death’s door lies in the likelihood of spreading the virus.
If Cummings’ account is to be believed, it is hard to see how driving without stopping to a private home and then isolating within it for a period of time, and then returning to London after having received medical clearance jeopardises the lives of others in any way. Visiting a relative dying of coronavirus however poses the obvious problem of subjecting the visitor to a risk of catching the virus, which they then might spread to others.
Debate over whether Cummings did indeed contravene the spirit of the lockdown that he himself had supported led some, and only after much public pontification, to the conclusion that there is one rule for the powerful and another for everyone else.
The irony here is that this is the very thing that those who called for Cummings’ resignation were implicitly advocating. If politicians and their special advisors were treated exactly the same as the public, Cummings would be fined for any flouting of the rules, not sacked. But perhaps we ought to hold those in power to higher moral standards, which after the disingenuous indigence amongst the press and public, shouldn’t be all too difficult to achieve.
My suspicion is that much of the outrage directed towards Cummings did not stem from his actions, but rather is the product of his critics stumbling across a ready pretext in which to express their resentment of him. For those who despise the Conservative government, or for those who hold Cummings culpable for the country’s supporting of Brexit, this recent imbroglio serves as the perfect excuse to let loose on him.
What is worrying about this, however, is that it reveals a failing of moral integrity. Exaggerating or even feigning outrage at Cummings’ behaviour suggests a malleability of one’s ethical standards that is not be applauded. We should not bend our moral principles to suit our political allegiances. But this is precisely what has happened. Many who have bemoaned Cummings’ actions will have not batted an eye lid at Labour MP Stephen Kinnock’s driving hundreds of miles to visit his aged parents, or indeed at Labour MP Tahir Ali’s attending of a funeral in his constituency as one of 100 attendees.
Political partisan is not a justification for the inconsistent application of moral standards. We either believe there are reasonable grounds for a slight flex in our adherence to the lockdown, or we do not. We cannot have it both ways.
By Isaac Parry