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Cummings, a puzzle about delayed lockdowns and more parallels between Johnson and Trump

Summary:
Much (unfortunately for Hancock not all) of the material Cummings talked about in his morning testimony we already knew. Like the plans for Herd Immunity (all over by September) and how various people in and outside government realised those plans were time inconsistent (were bound to be changed as hospitals were overwhelmed). As I wroteat the end of April last year, our “Prime Minister and some in his cabinet, even in the face of predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths, was too contentto do nothing, takeit on the chin, and too fearful of curtailing economic freedoms to interrogate the advice they were given.” Johnson didn’t invent Herd Immunity, but he was happy to go along with it until some of his advisors persuaded him otherwise, and even then he delayed for around 10 days

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Much (unfortunately for Hancock not all) of the material Cummings talked about in his morning testimony we already knew. Like the plans for Herd Immunity (all over by September) and how various people in and outside government realised those plans were time inconsistent (were bound to be changed as hospitals were overwhelmed). As I wroteat the end of April last year, our “Prime Minister and some in his cabinet, even in the face of predictions of hundreds of thousands of deaths, was too contentto do nothing, takeit on the chin, and too fearful of curtailing economic freedoms to interrogate the advice they were given.” Johnson didn’t invent Herd Immunity, but he was happy to go along with it until some of his advisors persuaded him otherwise, and even then he delayed for around 10 days before imposing a lockdown.


Given what Cummings said and what we already knew, can the government really persist with lying about the initial strategy? Can the BBC really two-side this if they do? At some point the BBC should start pointing viewers to the truth. Another thing reporters must stop doing is talking about a health/economy trade off. It was good to see Cummings setting out yesterday what I and others have been saying for over a year: there is no trade-off. If you delay lockdown because of the economy, you will have a longer lockdown later with greater economic damage, and people will start locking down themselves anyway.


What was new from Cummings, and by far the most concerning part of his testimony, is that by the summer Johnson had thought he had made a mistake. According to Cummings he felt that he had been bounced into imposing a lockdown. Johnson thought he should have been like the guy from Jaws who wanted to keep the beach open, much as he had in February. Which helps explain why policy shifted in the summer to restarting the economy, with little thought for the pandemic. It was why Johnson rejected the advice from his scientists to lockdown in September. (BBC again - please stop quoting without qualification the PM saying he always followed the science. It’s such an obvious lie.)


In my last post I talked about how you had to see this government as first and foremost populists (in the Jan-Werner Müller sense), in the same ilk as Trump, Orban and others. Yet as a result of Cummings testimony I realise I had in my discussion of the government’s failures in the second half of 2020 not done that enough myself. I just couldn’t understand why Johnson kept delaying lockdowns, at the cost of many tens of thousands of lives. It was a puzzle to me, which if I had fully examined Johnson as a populist I would have understood.


One of the persistent features of Trump’s period as president was his obsession with Fox News. He preferred to get his information from Fox News than internal government briefings. In time Fox News started to understand this, and some of its journalists started directly addressing him in their shows. Why did Trump do this? Because all populists are narcissists who want to be admired by their people. Most of the time, Fox News obliged.


Narcissists don’t want to be loved, they want to be admired. Trump watched Fox obsessively to check he was still being admired. That he was a winner and not a loser. What has this got to do with Johnson and the pandemic. For me it solves the puzzle as to why Johnson didn’t follow the science in the second half of 2020.


I have in the past dismissed the influence that the anti-lockdown right wing press had on the government, as well as the anti-lockdown Tory faction of MPs for that matter. I assumed that once the government had understood the reality of how pandemics worked and the lack of any health/economy trade-off, they wouldn’t be influenced by anti-lockdown nonsense. That was true for Cummings as much as it was for the government’s scientific advice.


I had also compared, like many others, Johnson and Trump and pointed out the many similarities. They were both populists after all, interested in power for its own sake rather than as a vehicle to achieve certain policies they believed in. Nick Clegg has describedJohnson as like ‘Trump with a thesaurus’. But I didn’t carry this comparison through.


If we believe Cummings, Johnson too is obsessed by the media read by ‘his people’, and in particular his own paper The Telegraph. He looks to them to check he is being admired. So when this and other right wing papers started publishing anti-lockdown nonsense, it got to him. As the Prime Minister who had locked down the economy he was no longer admired by these newspapers. This overrode any ability to understand the reasons why lockdown was necessary (and quick and hard lockdowns particularly), so he became over the summer a lockdown skeptic.


Do I believe Cummings. On this I do, because it makes perfect sense and explains why he allowed so many unnecessary deaths by ‘going for growth’ in the summer, refusing to lockdown in September, and not locking down in December. This, rather than anything that happened in March, is why Johnson wants to put off an inquiry (and will not publish the internal inquiry that has already taken place). As Cummings said, lots of people died who didn’t need to die, and Johnson is the person who let that happen by ignoring his scientific advice.


I think too many people in their commentary on Cummings feel they have to blame the messenger. On issues like the role of Sunak I would take what he says with a large pinch of salt. I don’t think Cummings is looking for any favours from Sunak but Cummings admires people who are bright and get things done. The Treasury is full of such people and Sunak probably is too. So I would discount that. But Cummings’ discussion of the pandemic itself fits the facts. So when Cummings says that Johnson regretted locking down in March I can believe him, because it helps solve a puzzle about behaviour that I have seen no other satisfactory explanation for.


Johnson became a lockdown skeptic, and many tens of thousands of people died as a result, because he was obsessed with how he appeared in the anti-lockdown press and among his anti-lockdown MPs. Like Trump, he wanted to be admired by the media of his people, and like Trump that desire was sufficient to override all the good advice he received within government. When Cummings said Johnson cannot be trusted to run this country, he is merely confirming a viewsome of us have had for some time. What we couldn’t predict is that this wouldn’t just cost many livelihoods, it would also cost tens of thousands of lives.

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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