The UK has the highest number of Covid-19 related deaths per million people of any country in the world. The official total is 37,000 but the number of excess deaths is 64,000.
These are the facts that should be on the front pages and at the front of our minds this week. Instead, we have had seven days and counting of Mr Cummings and his fantastical road trips.
Over the last few days I have received hundreds of emails from constituents who wanted to express their views on Cummings and how his behaviour has been excused by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. There is substantial, and in important respects accepted, evidence of his breach of key guidelines introduced to control the spread of the virus. This should have been sufficient to remove him from his central position in government. As Keir Starmer said, he would have dismissed him on the evidence he has seen.
But Keir, unsurprisingly keen on due process, also said the proper course for the government to follow was a full and independent investigation into Cummings’ behaviour. If Cummings had been suspended and such an inquiry begun, the issue would have been set aside and the actual crisis put back centre stage. But Johnson refuses to do this.
This week sees a number of important deadlines: imperatively for the long-overdue testing and tracing programme and increasing testing to 200,000 a day. But the whole government is distracted, tying itself in knots over Cummings.
The process has descended into farce with one Cabinet member offering a review of fines for breaking guidelines where childcare was the mitigating explanation, and another jumping up to deny this would happen. Secretaries of State are demeaning themselves and their office by half-heartedly repeating nonsense about Cummings driving 60 miles to test if his eyesight was impaired, interspersed with recreational stops by the roadside.
Senior lawyers have pointed out that Cummings account is drafted like a defence witness statement. Its purpose is to explain the accusations that have been made not give an open account of what happened. In other words, it is retro-engineered to exculpate him, but it fails to do so, either admitting offences or putting forward ludicrous explanations for his conduct.
As Jeremy Hunt commented, there are at least three undisputed breaches of the guidance, which Cummings must have seen even before it was issued to the public: going immediately back to work after visiting someone (his wife) with suspected Covid-19 symptoms, travelling to Durham without a reasonable excuse during lockdown and making the trip to Barnard Castle. To which we can add a fourth, driving his family to hospital in Durham when he was infected with the virus. Durham police have also found there was at least one breach of the regulations
But before I fall into the trap of sifting the minutiae, what constituents have primarily written to me about is the attitude and disdain Cummings showed by his behaviour and Johnson continues to show by protecting him. Whatever their motivation, their actions are clear: the rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to them.
The reason this is important is that, more than emergency laws or books of guidelines, our country is tackling the virus by means of a social contract which means fundamentally changing the way we live for a substantial period of time. For some this means inconvenience, for some it means economic hardship and possible financial ruin. For many it means heart-breaking personal separation and loss.
Among the hundreds of emails I have received are those from constituents who have lost family members without saying goodbye and those separated from elderly relatives or young children since lockdown began.
This is not an equal struggle. It is well-documented that poorer people, frontline workers and minority ethnic communities are suffering more. But we should be able to say everyone is doing their bit. Mr Cummings’ situation may not have been the easiest, but it was far from being the worst, and the support and resources at his disposal are far greater than most families can rely upon. All he had to do was behave appropriately.
However, the reason this story will not go away is not about punishing or vilifying Cummings, it is about what he represents. He is the second most powerful man in government – that is clear now if it wasn’t before. The Prime Minister rates him above all others. So, if Cummings does not follow the rules why should anyone else?
As it happens most people do continue to act in the collective interest. They are better than Cummings. But the police, the NHS, the scientists fighting for a vaccine or cure have all had their lives made more difficult by this arrogant display.
So, Cummings should go – to lance the boil or to allow for a proper inquiry. We should focus on the essential work that now needs to be done. But we should not forget what this episode has said about the priorities, character and fitness for office of the Johnson government.