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Open Labour National Committee elections – Why I am standing and what I stand for

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It can be hard after 10 years of Tory rule but we need to keep dreaming that we can do better. We need to keep dreaming big and work to make our dreams a reality. I am standing for the Open Labour National Committee because I want to contribute to that work.

Over the last 5 years, Open Labour has made a huge contribution to the Labour Party and Labour movement. It has not only promoted transformative, left-wing politics but shown that this can be done in an inclusive way that values a pluralistic Labour Party. I enjoy Open Labour events because of their vibrant and comradely nature.

I am standing for the Open Labour National Committee to help Open Labour do even more in future, building on the good work that has already been done. I have set out below the key areas where I would like to see Open Labour leading the debate. I am planning to write a separate piece on organisational aspects of Open Labour.

I would be grateful for feedback and comments, whether on something you think I have not got right, missed out or otherwise. You can contact me here.

1. Covid-19 – putting people first

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We must be clear that in responding to Covid-19 we must put people’s wellbeing first before business and economic considerations. That means not easing the lockdown until it is genuinely safe to do so and there is a proper track and tracing system in place. Of course, health and care workers should be supplied with the PPE they need and there should be stronger safeguards to ensure all workers are as safe as possible. We must stand with trade unions as they fight to protect their members.

Economic considerations should of course be taken into account to the extent that they impact wellbeing, but they should not be the basis of decision-making. We also need to make sure that those who are facing economic hardship get the support they need, for example through rent cancellations.

Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting BAME people and we must put in place measures to address this. Victims of domestic violence are also at considerable risk as a result of the lock-down and better support needs to be provided for them.

The government is developing a tracing app to help with combatting Covid-19. New legislation is needed to protect the data collected by it and maximise the chances of the public trusting the app, as suggested by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

2. Build back better

Hang In There. Image created by Ayşegül Altınel. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19.

After the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we cannot just go back to business as usual. We should ensure that we build a more equal and closer-knit society after this crisis. No one should earn less than the living wage and our public service workers should get the pay they deserve, not year after year of wage freezes. It is appalling that the government is already ending help that was put in place for rough sleepers earlier in the Covid-19 crisis.

We need to put in place a centrally funded National Care Service that provides high quality care for our elderly, as well as decent pay and working conditions for staff.

Already, the right is arguing that after the Covid-19 crisis is over fresh round of austerity is needed. Open Labour needs to be at the forefront of developing a political strategy and communications to make the case for building back better to a more equitable society.

3. A good wage economy

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A core priority for Labour must be secure jobs with good wages. Wages in the UK have stagnated since the 2007-8 financial crisis. To address this we need to increase productivity, for example through investment in education and infrastructure, while also ensuring that workers get a fair share of productivity increases. We also need to improve employment protections and to move away from a long-hours economy.

I would like to see Open Labour lead the debate on how to bring about the changes we need to make to the economy. 

4. Properly funded public services

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Our public services have suffered from a decade of austerity and the impact is showing. We need to ensure public services are properly funded. For example, over the past decade, as part of austerity, money that was meant to be spent on NHS equipment and buildings was diverted by the government to be used for day-to-day running costs. There is a £6.5 billion maintenance backlog, £3.4 billion of which presents a high or significant risk to patients and staff. I set up the Rebuild Our Health Service to fight for the funding that the NHS needs for new buildings and equipment.

5. International solidarity

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I am proud of Labour’s internationalism and will always defend it, whether that is welcoming refugees or supporting a close relationship with the EU. I was strongly opposed to Brexit and campaigned for a referendum on the Brexit deal. As I argue in this article, we should not give into nativist forces but rather find socialist responses.

We need an extension to the transition period to stop a no-deal Brexit and to fight for as close a relationship to the EU as possible. 

6. Defending and extending human rights

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When the Supreme Court ruled that the prorogation of Parliament was not legal, the Tories vowed to get revenge. They want to reduce the independence of the judiciary, weaken the ability of the public to challenge government through judicial review and undermine or even scrap the Human Rights Act. At the same time, legal aid has been slashed, depriving people of vital legal support in areas such as housing and employment. Open Labour should be at the forefront of defending human rights and extending human rights protections to include economic and social rights.  

7. Benefits with dignity not stigma

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Those receiving benefits are some of the most vulnerable in society. Labour has pledged to scrap universal credit but we need to replace it with a new system that treats benefit recipients with dignity and gives them the help they need. We need to substantially increase benefit levels as well as radically improving the support that is offered, whether that be with job seeking, training or to address health problems. I would like to see Open Labour developing ideas and policies in this area, looking at good practice from around the world.

8. Popularising a green new deal

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Labour had great policies for a Green New Deal in our last manifesto but somehow the idea did not cut through with the public. I would like to see Open Labour work on how we can communicate policies in this area better, as the climate emergency cannot wait.

9. Fighting discrimination

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Labour stands for nothing if it does not stand for equality for all. As a member of the Open Labour National Committee, I will fight racism, sexism, antisemitism, transphobia and every form of discrimination. 

Labour cannot tackle discrimination in society unless it deals with it within the party. Labour prided itself as a party of anti-racism, feminism and decency but this reputation has been tarnished in recent year. We need to take decisive action to ensure that decency prevails in the Labour Party, that we foster a culture of inclusion and respect, and drive antisemites, islamophobes, racists, misogynists, harassers, trolls and their ilk from the Labour Party.

I have drafted a plan for decency in the Labour Party, which has been published by Open Labour, with a detailed plan to fight discrimination and harassment in the Labour Party.

10. Improving Labour’s culture

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Like every Labour Party member, I was disappointed to read the recent reports of the behaviour of senior Labour Party officials and failures to deal with antisemitism. However, like many members, I was not surprised. It has been clear for some time that the behaviour of many in the Labour Party and the culture that has developed is not in keeping with Labour’s ideals.

I think Open Labour’s response to the leaked report was excellent. As a member of the Open Labour National Committee I would like to help contribute to these kinds of thoughtful and clear contributions to the debate within the Labour Party. I have written for LabourList on how Labour’s internal culture could be improved and am proud the Open Labour has set such a good example for the rest of the party.

My statement for the Open Labour elections

Open Labour has made a huge contribution to Labour and I want to help us do even more.

Open Labour should lead the argument that the Covid-19 response should put people’s wellbeing first before business. Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting BAME people and, as Open Labour London BAME Officer, I have been leading work on this issue.

After Covid-19 is over, we cannot just go back to business as usual. The right wants more austerity. We need to argue for building back better to a more equitable, closer-knit and green society.

I fully back Open Labour’s support for a more inclusive culture in Labour and to oppose antisemitism, racism, sexism, transphobia and other forms of discrimination.  

My experience includes being vice-chair of the Society of Labour Lawyers, defending human rights and legal aid. Before I became a lawyer, I co-founded the UpRising Leadership Programme for young leaders from diverse backgrounds. I also worked for Emily Thornberry MP, helping her retain her then marginal seat, campaign for more affordable housing and stop plans for 90 days detention for terrorist suspects.

More of my ideas are at www.omarsalem.com. If you have any questions, please email me: omar@omarsalem.com.  

Please give me your 1st vote.

Omar Salem is standing for an open position on the Open Labour National Committee. You can find out more about why he is standing and what he stands for here.

Is there a Metropolitan Police investigation into Dominic Cummings?

Durham Constabulary issued a statement on Thursday that they would not be taking any enforcement action regarding Dominic Cummings trip to Durham on 27 March or his trio to Barnard Castle on 12 April.

There has been no similar statement from the Metropolitan Police, despite the fact that Cummings breached the locakdown rules by returning to No.10 Downing Street after going home to see his wife, who had suspected Covid-19, on 27 March (before later returning home and driving to Durham).

According to Cummings, on the morning of 27 March, he went into work in Downing Street as normal but received a call from his wife later in the day saying that she felt badly ill. He says he left Downing Street shortly afterwards and returned home. After a couple of hours, Cummings said his wife felt better and “there were many critical things at work and she urged me to return in the afternoon and I did”.

Cummings says that his wife had vomited but she did not have a cough or a cold. Nonetheless, he and his wife thought that she might have Covid, so much so that they drove to Durham later that evening to ensure appropriate childcare was in place should they both succumb to Covid. Cummings wife, Mary Wakefield, is clear in the Spectator article she wrote about her illness that she thought she might have Covid-19, writing:

that evening, as I lay on the sofa, a happy thought occurred to me: if this was the virus, then my husband, who works 16-hour days as a rule, would have to come home“.

The guidance on this scenario that was in force at the time is clear:

If you live with others and you are the first in the household to have symptoms of coronavirus, then you must stay at home for 7 days, but all other household members who remain well must stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days.

By going into Downing Street on the afternoon of 27 March Dominic Cummings breached the guidance as well as the lockdown regulations, a criminal offence. The lockdown regulations at the time of Cummings’ return to Downing Street included an offence for anyone who during the lockdown period leaves the place where they are living without reasonable excuse.

There is a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses, including “to travel for the purposes of work or to provide voluntary or charitable services, where it is not reasonably possible for that person to work, or to provide those services, from the place where they are living”. I do not see how Cummings could have relied on this as a reasonable excuse given surely the No.10 policy at the time would have been that he should self-isolate at home and not travel to No.10 for work.

Not only were Cummings actions a breach of requirements that he himself was involved in telling others to comply with but his behaviour put others at risk work were working in one of the most strategically important buildings in the country, 10 Downing Street, where staff were working on the response to Coronavirus. The Durham Constabulary stated that the considered Cummings’ trip to be a minor breach of the lockdown regulations as social distancing was maintained. This is not the case for his visit to 10 Downing Street on the afternoon of 27 March. It seems like this breach of the lockdown regulations is something that the Metropolitan police should be considering and investigating.

Omar Salem writes in a personal capacity.

Putting people first and building back better

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Coronavirus has extracted a heavy toll. Instead of the Tory approach to dealing with it, we need to put people first. People’s health, the vulnerable, the elderly and school children should come before business and the economy. Economic considerations should be taken into account to the extent that they impact wellbeing, but they should not be the basis of decision-making. Just as Boris Johnson and the Tories believe it is one rule for Dominic Cummings and a different rule for the rest of us, their approach to Coronavirus is not delivering for the many.

Labour needs to fight for a different approach. That means not easing the lockdown until it is genuinely safe to do so and there is a proper tracking and tracing system in place. Health and care workers should be supplied with the PPE they need and there should be stronger safeguards to ensure all workers are as safe as possible. We must stand with trade unions as they fight to protect their members.

We also need to make sure that those who are facing economic hardship get the support they need, for example through rent cancellations. Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting BAME people and we must put in place measures to address this. Victims of domestic violence are also at considerable risk as a result of the lock-down and better support needs to be provided for them.

The government is developing a track and tracing app to help with combatting Covid-19. New legislation is needed to protect the data collected by it and maximise the chances of the public trusting the app, as suggested by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

After the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we cannot just go back to business as usual. Covid-19 has shown the best of humanity, from our NHS and care workers to neighbours helping each other. We should ensure that we build a more equal and closer-knit society after this crisis, like we did after the Second World War.

The coronavirus crisis has now thrown into sharp relief how fragile many people’s existence is. Many workers were living pay cheque to pay cheque before the pandemic, while those out of work struggled on meagre benefits. Many of the elderly are not getting the help they need due to the crisis in the social care system and the NHS has been underfunded for a decade.

Nonetheless, the right is already arguing for a fresh round of austerity. We need to make the case for instead building back better to a more equitable society.

No one should earn less than the living wage, public service workers should get the pay they deserve, not year after year of wage freezes, and public services should get the money they need.

A core priority for Labour must be secure jobs with good wages. Wages in the UK have stagnated since the 2007-8 financial crisis. To address this, we need to increase productivity, for example through investment in education and infrastructure, while also ensuring that workers get a fair share of productivity increases. We also need to improve employment protections and to move away from a long-hours economy.

We need a benefits system that treats people with dignity not stigma. Those receiving benefits are some of the most vulnerable in society. Labour has pledged to scrap universal credit but we need to replace it with a new system that treats benefit recipients with dignity and gives them the help they need. We need to substantially increase benefit levels as well as radically improving the support that is offered, whether that be with job seeking, training or to address health problems.

Coronavirus has exposed the frailty of our care system. We need to put in place a centrally funded National Care Service that provides high quality care for our elderly, as well as decent pay and working conditions for staff.

Labour had great policies for a Green New Deal in our last manifesto but somehow the idea did not cut through with the public. We need to communicate policies in this area better, as the climate emergency cannot wait.

Coronavirus has shown that where there is the will there is a way to bring about major social change, whether that is in how we go about our daily lives or providing massive state support to the economy. We need to translate that capacity for action into the post-coronavirus world and build back better to a more equal society that puts people first.

Omar Salem is standing in the elections for an open place on the Open Labour National Committee.

Why it is now clear that Dominic Cummings should resign

When the reports first emerged of Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham, my initial reaction was, despite my dislike for Cummings’ politics, to be sympathetic to him. He was after all a father trying to do the best thing for his family, with an ill wife and huge pressure from dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.

I wrote that we should approach these situations with humanity. I would certainly want to make sure my daughter was looked after by someone I trusted if I had Covid-19 and my condition deteriorated. This was not just a matter of wanting ordinary childcare, it was quite possible that Cummings or his wife would need to be admitted to hospital or could even have died.

I also felt that we needed to see the full facts and that it would be much better for an independent investigation to establish what happened and what rules might have been broken, rather than having a trial by media. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister decided not to have a proper independent investigation but instead to speak to Cummings himself and then have Cummings explain the situation to the nation via a press conference in the garden of No.10 Downing Street.

Cummings’ statement in the No.10 garden revealed new information that in my view now makes his position untenable. I set out in this blog the key allegations against Cummings, whether his behaviour in each case breached the guidance or lockdown regulations at the time and why it is right that Cummings resigns or is sacked.

Return to Downing Street

Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

According to Cummings, on the morning of 27 March, he went into work in Downing Street as normal but received a call from his wife later in the day saying that she felt badly ill. He says he left Downing Street shortly afterwards and returned home. After a couple of hours, Cummings said his wife felt better and “there were many critical things at work and she urged me to return in the afternoon and I did”.

Cummings says that his wife had vomited but she did not have a cough or a cold. Nonetheless, he and his wife thought that she might have Covid, so much so that they drove to Durham later that evening to ensure appropriate childcare was in place should they both succumb to Covid. Cummings wife, Mary Wakefield, is clear in the Spectator article she wrote about her illness that she thought she might have Covid-19, writing:

that evening, as I lay on the sofa, a happy thought occurred to me: if this was the virus, then my husband, who works 16-hour days as a rule, would have to come home“.

The guidance on this scenario that was in force at the time is clear:

If you live with others and you are the first in the household to have symptoms of coronavirus, then you must stay at home for 7 days, but all other household members who remain well must stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days.

Dominic Cummings return to Downing Street was a clear breach of this guidance. Not only was it a breach of requirements that he himself was involved in telling others to comply with but his behaviour put others at risk work were working in one of the most strategically important buildings in the country, 10 Downing Street, where staff were working on the response to Coronavirus.

Journey from London to Durham

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In his statement, Cummings advanced three arguments for the journey from London to Durham:

  1. He was concerned that there was no one he could “reasonably ask for childcare” if both he and his wife were so ill that they were not able to take care of their child.
  2. That he might be able to get a Covid test and return to work if he tested negative (presumably leaving his wife and son in Durham).
  3. That he was concerned about the atmosphere around his London home, with people coming to his house shouting threats and posts on social media encouraging attacks. He was also worried that given the severity of this emergency, this situation would get worse and about the possibility of leaving his wife and child at home all day and into the night while he worked in No.10.

The applicable guidance at the time said:

If you are living with children

Keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible. What we have seen so far is that children with coronavirus appear to be less severely affected. It is nevertheless important to do your best to follow this guidance.

This guidance is vague but does allow scope for Cummings to argue that he did not breach the guidance as he followed it to the best of his ability, but needed to travel from London to Durham for childcare purposes. However, Jess Phillips MP has tweeted that the exemption was “put in because of domestic and child abuse in the home. To say to people who felt their children were not safe could leave. It was not because of childcare crisis, it might lead to confusion but that was what it was for”. This puts into sharp relief the question of whether Dominic Cummings, especially given his position and the scope for him acting out of line with the guidance to undermine the Government’s public health message, should have sought advice on the guidance.

The lockdown regulations at the time of Cummings’ trip to Durham include an offence for anyone who during the lockdown period leaves the place where they are living without reasonable excuse. There is a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses, including “to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm”. Cummings may argue that he falls with this (although the word “escape” does not naturally fit his circumstances) or that he had a reasonable excuse, bearing in mind also that what he did may have been allowed under the guidance.

It is also worth remembering that there is a, probably necessary, gap between: (i) what government communications say people can do; (ii) what the guidance says people can do; and (iii) what is an offence under the lockdown regulations.

Some stuff will be in goverment communications but not reflected in guidance or legislation because it is not practical to communicate all the details of the restrictions. Also, guidance should generally be guidance because it is not reasonable to make it mandatory (e.g. because there are circumstances where it is reasonable not to follow the guidance, including circumstances that the drafters know they might not envisage).

Nonetheless, the regulations might have been clearer (and more helpful to Cummings) if there had been Parliamentary scrutiny of them. Ironically, Cummings, amongst others, is likely to have been involved in the decision for there not to be Parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations before they were put in place. Perhaps one good thing that could come out of this affair is a greater respect for Parliamentary scrutiny from Cummings.

A court in considering the Cummings case would need to take into account human rights issues, including the right to life and family life. We should not forget that how you care for your child is a very personal decision and we should not impinge on people’s choices in this area any more than is necessary and justified (just as the police using drones to monitor people is overkill). On the other hand, Cummings’ trip presented a potential threat to others, including the risk of spreading Covid-19 to a less impacted part of the country, not least as a result of his son being admitted to hospital (accompanied by Cummings’ wife).

In relation to Cumming’s argument about being motivated by the possibility of getting a Covid-19 test and being able to return to work if he tested negative, this seems clearly to be an argument based on the exceptionalism of his position that is unlikely to be a “reasonable excuse” under the lockdown regulations, not least as it had not been endorsed by the Prime Minister or, it appears, anyone at No.10.

In relation to Cummings’ safety concerns, the lockdown regulations allow you to leave the place where you live to “to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm”. It is questionable whether there was a sufficient level of risk to justify Cummings’ move to Durham. It does not appear that Cummings consulted the police on the issue of moving to Durham temporarily or sought advice on whether they thought this would be permissible under the lockdown regulations, which surely would have been a wise thing to do.

Trip to Barnard Castle

Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

On Sunday 12 April, Easter Sunday, Cummings drove with his wife and son to Barnard Castle, a beauty spot about 30 miles away from where they were staying, and back. It also was his wife’s birthday that day. This is Cummings’ account of the trip:

On Sunday 12 April, 15 days after I had first displayed symptoms, I decided to return to work. My wife was very worried, particularly given my eyesight seemed to have been affected by the disease. She didn’t want to risk a nearly 300-mile drive with our child, given how ill I had been. We agreed that we should go for a short drive to see if I could drive safely. We drove for roughly half an hour and ended up on the outskirts of Barnard Castle town. We did not visit the castle. We did not walk around the town. We parked by a river. My wife and I discussed the situation. We agreed that I could drive safely, we should turn around, go home. I felt a bit sick. We walked about 10 to 15 metres from the car to the river bank nearby. We sat there for about 15 minutes. We had no interactions with anybody. I felt better. We returned the car. An elderly gentleman walking nearby appeared to recognise me. My wife wished him Happy Easter from a distance, but we had no other interaction.

This explanation seems somewhat bizarre. It does not seem to be normal to make a 60 mile round trip to test one’s eyesight. Surely, if Cummings was concerned about his eyesight the first thing he should have done was get medical advice. I find it hard to imagine that a doctor would have recommended the course of action he took. Further, it may have been a safety risk, both to Cummings, his family and others, for him to have driven in the condition he was in (especially given than he said he felt sick during the drive). There is a question whether Cummings briefed road safety legislation (such as the Road Safety Act 1988) the Highway Code.

Given the inappropriateness and possible riskiness of the trip to Barnard Castle, it is hard to imagine that it would amount to a “reasonable excuse” under the lockdown regulations. The fact that the trip, to a local beauty spot, took place on Cummings’ wife’s birthday also makes Cummings already strange story seem even more suspicious.

One rule for the few, another for the many

I believe that Dominic Cummings was trying to do what was best for his family and for the country in dealing with this issue. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by a belief that different rules apply to him from the rest of us.

In relation to Cummings’ return to Downing Street on 27 March and the trip to Barnard Castle, it seems clear that he breached the requirements that everyonelse was expected to follow. The situation in relation to the trip to Durham is less clear-cut, but it certainly would have been wise for him at the very least to get advice/clearance from No.10 or the police.

Cummings’ actions put others at risk of catching a very dangerous disease and have undermined the public health message of the government. We need to all work together to beat Covid-19 and no-one should be above that or above the law. People have been prevented from being with their loved ones in their last moments, from having proper funerals and many other hardships. Cummings remaining in post would be an insult to the British people and a danger to the effectiveness of the response to Covid-19.

Cummings is known as a rambunctious and divisive character. That perhaps is part of his genius but it should surely also be the making of his downfall. If Dominic Cummings does not resign or Boris Johnson does not sack him the message will be clear: there is one rule for the few and other rule for the many. That would be a tragedy for the country.

Omar Salem writes in a personal capacity.

10 Questions that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings must answer

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The recent statements by Boris Johnson and No.10 regarding Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham have raised more questions than they’ve answered. There needs to be a proper independent investigation to get answers to these questions, rather than a trial by media.

The lack of an independent investigation should not stop us from getting answers to the outstanding question. Here are the key outstanding questions that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings need to answer:

  1. Why do Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings consider that Cummings’ actions were in keeping with the Government guidance and the lockdown regulations. In particular, why do they consider that Cummings had a “reasonable excuse” (as is required by the lockdown regulations to leave your home)?
  2. Did Dominic Cummings seek advice from any part of government, either prior to or subsequent from, his trip to Durham on either the legality of his actions or whether he was in full adherence to the guidance in place at the time?
  3. Why were there not alterative arrangements for back-up childcare in / nearer to London that would have met the particular needs of Cummings’ son?
  4. Did Cummings and his family stop at any point during their trip from London to Durham?
  5. Is it the Government’s view that it is compliant with the Government guidance and the lockdown regulations for others in the same circumstances as Dominic Cummings to act in the same way? This is a yes/no question.
  6. Did Cummings, his wife and his son remain self-isolated throughout their stay in Durham?
  7. Why did Dominic Cummings visit Barnard Castle on 12 April? Why do Johnson and Cummings consider this trip to have been compliant with the Government guidance and the lockdown regulations?
  8. What steps has Boris Johnson taken to verify Dominic Cummings’ account?
  9. Why was the No.10 statement about police speaking to Cummings’ family inconsistent with Durham Constabulary’s statements?
  10. When did Boris Johnson / No.10 find out about Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham? It appears that on 30 March No.10 told the press that Dominic Cummings was self-isolating at home when he was in fact in Durham. Will No.10 publish any state ments that were issued in relation to Dominic Cummings on 30 March? What information did No.10 base its statements on and who was responsible for them?

Omar Salem writes in a personal capacity.

Updated: How do you solve a problem like Dominic Cummings?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/Dominic_Cummings_2020.jpg
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Dominic Cummings is never far from controversy. Revelations that he and his wife made the 264-mile journey from London to Durham with their son in late March have led to calls for his resignation for breaching government guidelines and legislation on the lockdown.

It is easy to call for resignations but it is important that we take a calm and considered look at the circumstances and whether Dominic Cummings behaviour did indeed breach government guidance and legislation.

The lockdown restrictions are a huge infringement on people’s freedoms and human rights and they should be enforced fairly for everyone. We all have an interest in a sensible and proportionate approach being taken. What Cummings did may indeed have been a breach of the guidance and/or regulations but there needs to be careful thought about all cases where there these types of allegations rather than rushing to judgment.

Despite, in my view, that Dominic Cummings is an objectionable and dishonest character, we need to approach these situations with humanity and think about what we would do in similar circumstances. I would certainly want to make sure my daughter was looked after by someone I trusted if I had Covid-19 and my condition deteriorated. This was not just a matter of wanting ordinary childcare, it was quite possible that Cummings or his wife would need to be admitted to hospital or even have died.

It is also worth remembering that there is a, probably necessary, gap between: (i) what government communications say people can do; (ii) what the guidance says people can do; and (iii) what is an offence under the lockdown regulations.

Some stuff will be in goverment communications but not reflected in guidance or legislation because it is not practical to communicate all the details of the restrictions. Also, guidance should generally be guidance because it is not reasonable to make it mandatory (e.g. because there are circumstances where it is reasonable not to follow the guidance, including circumstances that the drafters know they might not envisage).

No 10 statement

No. 10 Downing Street has issued the following statement regarding the situation:

Owing to his wife being infected with suspected coronavirus and the high likelihood that he would himself become unwell, it was essential for Dominic Cummings to ensure his young child could be properly cared for.

His sister and nieces had volunteered to help so he went to a house near to, but separate from, his extended family in case their help was needed. His sister shopped for the family and left everything outside.

At no stage was he or his family spoken to by the police about this matter, as is being reported.

His actions were in line with coronavirus guidelines.

Durham Constabulary statement

Durham Constabulary have issued the following statement regarding Cummings:

On Tuesday, March 31, our officers were made aware of reports that an individual had travelled from London to Durham and was present at an address in the city.

Officers made contact with the owners of that address who confirmed that the individual in question was present and was self-isolating in part of the house.

In line with national policing guidance, officers explained to the family the guidelines around self-isolation and reiterated the appropriate advice around essential travel.

What the government guidance says

This guidance for households with possible coronavirus infections was first published by the Government on 12 March 2020. The 24 March 2020 version, which seems to have been the version in force at the time of Dominic Cummings’ trip, states:

If you live with others and you are the first in the household to have symptoms of coronavirus, then you must stay at home for 7 days, but all other household members who remain well must stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days.

So, the starting point, based on the No.10 statement regarding what happened, is that Dominic Cummings’s wife would have been required to self-isolate for 7 days from getting symptoms and Dominic Cummings and their son will have needed to self-isolate for 14 days from that point. The guidance is different for the point from which Dominic Cummings got symptoms but it appears that he made the trip prior to having symptoms.

However, the guidance then states the following:

If you are living with children

Keep following this advice to the best of your ability, however, we are aware that not all these measures will be possible. What we have seen so far is that children with coronavirus appear to be less severely affected. It is nevertheless important to do your best to follow this guidance.

This guidance is vague but does allow scope for Cummings to argue that he did not breach the guidance as he followed it to the best of his ability, as explained in the No.10 statement.

What the lockdown regulations require

The lockdown regulations at the time of Cummings’ trip to Durham include an offence for anyone who during the lockdown period leaves the place where they are living without reasonable excuse. There is a non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses, including “to avoid injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm”. Cummings may argue that he falls with this (although the word “escape” does not naturally fit his circumstances) or that he had a reasonable excuse, bearing in mind also that what he did may have been allowed under the guidance.

A court in considering the Cummings case would need to take into account human rights issues, including the right to life and family life. We should not forget that how you care for your child is a very personal decision and we should not impinge on people’s choices in this area any more than is necessary and justified (just as the police using drones to monitor people is overkill).

Need for a full investigation

We don’t know all the facts, so we need a proper investigation of all the facts under the Ministerial Code, before determining whether Cummings breached the guidance and/or the lockdown regulations and whether there was a No.10 cover-up. Labour is right that the No.10 statement raises more questions that it answers. The following questions are least need to be answered:

  1. Were there not alterative arrangements possible for back-up childcare in / nearer to London?
  2. Did Cummings, his wife and his son remain self-isolated throughout their stay in Durham?
  3. Why does there seem to be an inconsistency between the Durham Constabulary and No.10 statements about police speaking to the owners of the property Cummings was staying at?
  4. Were No.10 communications about the situation honest?

Parliamentary scrunity of the lockdown regulations might have helped Cummings

The regulations might have been clearer (and more helpful to Cummings) if there had been Parliamentary scrutiny of them. Ironically, Cummings, amongst others, is likely to have beem involved in the decision for there not to be Parliamentary scrutiny of the regulations before they were put in place. Perhaps one good thing that could come out of this affair is a greater respect for Parliamentary scrutiny from Dominic Cummings!

***UPDATE – 24 May 2020***

Allegations have emerged that Cummings was spotted back in Durham on 19 April, days after he was photographed in London having recovered from the virus, suggesting that he had made a second journey from London to Durham. He also allegedly left the home where he was staying in Durham to visit Barnard Castle, a town 30 miles away, on 12 April.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, said that the second trip did not take place and that Cummings had not returned to Durham since the 14 of April (when he returned to London following his stay in Durham).

Regarding the Barnard Castle trip, Boris Johnson said at today’s press briefing that Cummmings was in isolation for 14 days. Grant Shapps indicated on the Andrew Marr Show that Cummings originally went to Durham on the 27 or 28 March meaning that the period of self-isolation expired by the 12 April.

The guidance that was in place for social distancing at the time is here. This says that you should only leave the house for very limited purposes, including:

  • Shopping for basic necessities, for example food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.
  • One form of exercise a day, for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household.
  • Any medical need, including to donate blood, avoid or escape risk of injury or harm, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.
  • Travelling for work purposes, but only where you cannot work from home.

The lockdown regulations include exclusions in these areas as well as a number of others. It is not clear whether Dominic Cummings trip to Barnard Castle fell into out of the exemptions in the guidance to the requirement to stay at home and/or was a reasonable excuse under the lockdown regulations. Sunday 12 April was Easter Sunday for which the Government launched a huge advertising campaign to urge people to stay at home. On 9 April, Durham constabulary put out a notice asking motorists to respect government advice and that “your daily exercise should be taken as close to your home as possible”.

A proper investigation is needed to get to the bottom of what happened and what Dominic Cummings thinks means that he did not breach the guidance or the lockdown regulations.

Omar Salem writes in a personal capacity.

SAGE to make recommendations on face covering in public on Tuesday

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Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief Scientific Officer, has confirmed that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) should be making recommendations on Tuesday about the wearing of face coverings in public.

More and more countries around the world are requiring or recommending that everyone wears face coverings in public. More details about this and why this is thought to be a good idea are here.

SAGE’s advice must be shared with the media and public as soon as it is finalised.

The Government should make wearing face masks mandatory

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

Around the world, wearing a face mask in public has been made compulsory for everyone. This includes Maryland, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania states in the US, municipalities in France, Taiwan, Austria, the Czech Republic, Solvakia, Lombardy and parts of Germany.
In many countries, wearing a mask is now recommended even if it is not mandatory. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended that people use at least use a simple cloth face covering when they are in public spaces. The German Ministry of Health has isssued similar guidance.
The mandating and recommending that the public wear face masks is based on the idea that wearing a mask reduces the chance of the person wearing the mask transmitting Covid-19 (“my mask protects you, your mask protects me.”).
The CDC issued its advice after reviewing recent evidence on the transmission of infections. A team of researchers led by data scientist Jeremy Howard has also carried out an evidence review to assess the effectiveness of face masks at reducing the spread of face masks. This found that:

“The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low. Thus we recommend the adoption of public cloth mask wearing, as an effective form of source control, in conjunction with existing hygiene, distancing, and contact tracing strategies.”

Professor Trisha Greenhalgh and colleagues have argued for the use of masks on a precautionary basis, despite the face that the “efficacy and acceptability of the different types of face mask in preventing respiratory infections during epidemics is sparse and contested”. There advice is as follows:

“In conclusion, in the face of a pandemic the search for perfect evidence may be the enemy of good policy. As with parachutes for jumping out of aeroplanes, it is time to act without waiting for randomised controlled trial evidence. A recently posted preprint of a systematic review came to the same conclusion. Masks are simple, cheap, and potentially effective. We believe that, worn both in the home (particularly by the person showing symptoms) and also outside the home in situations where meeting others is likely (for example, shopping, public transport), they could have a substantial impact on transmission with a relatively small impact on social and economic life.”

However, the WHO and UK are not currently recommending that everyone should wear a mask in public. This seems to be, at least partly, because they want to prioritise masks for health care workers and those who are showing symptoms of Coronavirus. However, the masks that it is being suggested the public wear are not surgical masks, but cloth masks that are different from those that are needed for healthcare settings.

Public Health England says the following about facemasks:

“Face masks play a very important role in clinical settings, such as hospitals but there’s very little evidence of widespread benefit from their use outside of these clinical settings. Facemasks must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly and disposed of safely in order to be effective.”

Jeremy Howard and Professor Trisha Greenhalgh OBE have launched a campaign, Masks4All, calling for guidance for and mandating of the wearing of face masks in public. In the UK, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has also backed the wearing of face masks in public.

Reportedly, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), which advises the government, has commissioned research on the effectivness of masks for limiting the spread of Coronavirus. There needs to be a clear timetable for that research. The research needs to be made available and a decision made about making mask wearing compulsory urgently. Unless SAGE and the government can provide a clear and compelling explanation for why face mask wearing should not be compulsory, then the UK should require everyone to wear face masks in public.