DOMINIC Cummings, formerly the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, delivered sensational testimony before the Commons Select Committee this week, delighting those who enjoy politics as theatre and opponents of the Westminster Government.

His account – if we assume it is accurate, or nearly so (though it’s disputed), even if presented to put him in the best light – is of dithering, uncertainty and incompetence at the highest levels. It was a sobering story for hundreds of thousands who have lost relatives during the pandemic, or seen their livelihoods destroyed.

This is, however, only the version of a man sacked by the PM. Many lining up to proclaim him as some kind of whistleblowing figure were enjoining us, just weeks ago and just as enthusiastically, not to believe a word he said. What’s more, in terms of political impact, the attention given to his testimony by the media is not matched by the UK electorate as a whole: most have hardly heard of him; of those who have, only 16 per cent take a favourable view.

The success of the vaccine programme – the one unqualified success of the pandemic – and the Conservatives’ double-digit lead in the polls tends to confirm the theory that what matters most in a crisis is how you emerge from it, and that voters, as a mass, forgive and forget earlier errors.

That’s something from which not only the Tory Government at Westminster, but the SNP Government at Holyrood – whose handling of the crisis is open to similar criticisms, though it has received fewer – have benefited.

The vague impression of most who are not already committed opponents of Boris Johnson or Nicola Sturgeon is that either (seldom both: it is almost always one or the other) may have made mistakes but have done well in the face of unprecedented circumstances. Those attitudes are wildly different between Perth and Penrith.

If there is one thing about which Mr Cummings – no matter how dim a view of him you take – is undoubtedly right, however, it is that those easy assumptions will not do. Not merely because of the implied affront to those who have suffered tremendous loss, nor, if there have been failings, of properly holding people to account. What matters even more is that, unless we learn from episodes such as this, there can be no hope of doing any better in the future.

Herald View

Herald View

We need to begin to examine, right now, the failures that have cost lives and livelihoods. Mr Cummings castigated Matt Hancock, England’s Health Secretary, for claiming people were released into care homes after an unfulfilled promise they would be tested first. If that is true, it is a scandal. But the Scottish Government might bear in mind that it released into care homes people it actually knew were positive.

Mr Cummings lambasted the Westminster Cabinet for not having a plan, but that criticism was also directed at SAGE, Public Health England, the WHO, and the Civil Service, all of whom have now been shown to have made many serious errors, and whose advice he admits largely determined policy.

An uncontested bit of his testimony is that advice against quarantine, lockdown and masks until late March last year came from scientists and public health advisers; ministers followed scientific advice, and Holyrood, by and large, followed suit.

Since the Scottish Government also followed “the science”, it raises uncomfortable questions about what is to be done when scientists and their advisory bodies differ in approach and advice – as, in the very nature of science, they almost always do.

The First Minister, like the Prime Minister, seems to have emerged with the public’s general approval. Both owe that to their personal presentation, popularity and public perception, even if those differ sharply on either side of Hadrian’s Wall.

It’s an imperfect view. Worse, it isn’t enough, because it doesn’t identify the policy errors that might impede real progress. We need the inquiry to begin now, not to apportion blame, but to understand where we went wrong, and make sure we don’t slip on the road towards recovery.