Cummings was wrong – but his actions won’t get people going back to shops

A few people out and about queuing for the pharmacy in Ipswich town centre on Saturday. Picture: DEN

A few people out and about queuing for the pharmacy in Ipswich town centre on Saturday. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

Dominic Cummings is an arrogant, out-of-touch fool who should have apologised to the country and handed in his resignation to the Prime Minister by 10am on Saturday morning.

Boris Johnson should have been on the phone to Mr Cummings by 10.05am on Saturday morning to ask him where his letter of resignation was.

Neither of those things happened – and now it looks as if Mr Cummings will stay in post. If anything he is strengthened because to a large part of the country he now appears to be a strong Svengali-like figure controlling a wounded Prime Minister who is too weak to carry out the actions he knows are necessary.

We now have a ruling party with a membership and team of MPs who are split on the behaviour of the government . . . and a resurgent opposition. I would be surprised if some opinion polls didn’t start showing a Labour lead by the end of June.

But I don’t believe Mr Cummings’ foolish actions will lead to millions of people ignoring lockdown rules and behaving like everything is back to how it was at the beginning of March again – in fact it could be quite the opposite.

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People worried about that ignore the prime reason why lockdown has, so far, been so successful. People are scared of Covid-19. Many are actually terrified of the disease and what it could do to them or their loved ones.

They haven’t been staying at home because the government has told them to. They’ve been staying at home because they don’t want to die or end up in a Covid-19 ward at their local hospital.

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They’re not going to do what Mr Cummings did because they recognised he risked his life, that of his wife and child, that of his wider family in County Durham and – potentially – the lives of any strangers he may have come across during his journey to and around the north east.

And it is that fear that gives our town centres a real problem when the government does relax the rules on shops opening in three weeks’ time – as Ipswich Central chief executive Paul Clement recognised this week by warning that half the business space in the heart of the town might never reopen.

Because the lockdown has, and continues to, change the way we live our lives. People have become wary of strangers and are reluctant to put themselves at risk. The idea of browsing in Debenhams without a specific purchase in mind just doesn’t make sense any more.

And then those of us working from home don’t have the motivation to go into town during a lunch break. If I need something new for the house, I’m not going to stroll into the town centre to go to Wilkinsons, I’m going to pop out to B&M at the nearest retail park.

And we’re still a long way away from returning to the social elements of using the town centre. When will we return to the days when we’d just arrange to meet friends or business contacts in a Costa or Caffe Nero for a chat? If you just see the town centre as somewhere with shops it loses its communal importance.

If you can’t meet people there what’s the point? American cities long ago realised that shopping malls and retail parks were more important than town centres. Maybe that is the way we’re going.

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One last thing, when politicians and scientists talk about easing rules they have to trust people’s common sense and understand they are talking about human beings.

Until a couple of days ago we have heard little about the needs that many families now feel to meet up again. There have been some relaxations – but they have often looked daft.

For instance you can meet one other person, so long as you stay two metres apart, in a public place. In an area like Suffolk that means you can meet one parent standing on the side of a busy road but you’re not able to go into their half-acre garden next to the road because that’s private. What a crazy rule!

And grandparents are straining at the leash to know when they can see their families for the first time in months – they’ve had to stay apart even though they all know none of them have had any symptoms of the disease at any time. But still there is no real roadmap about how families can get together.

Getting the economy going is important, I know. But it will take years, if not decades, to restore it to financial health. What would give people a spring in their step is to know that ministers and scientists are giving some real thought to how they can get together with their loved ones again before too long.

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