An expert’s view on the ineptitude, confusion and complacency surrounding testing


There was a telling moment in the House of Commons last week that for me encapsulated the mood of exasperation and disillusionment at the Government’s maladroit handling of coronavirus.

When Health Secretary Matt Hancock began trumpeting the Cabinet’s new ambition of achieving ten million tests a day, he was greeted by howls of derision.

It was entirely understandable.

A medical worker is seen taking a Covid-19 swab sample. The ‘rule of six’ represents a severe indictment of the Government because our dysfunctional, over-centralised and poorly led state machine has dismally failed to meet the challenge of Covid

In recent months, ministers have continually over-promised and under-delivered. 

MPs were making the point that what Britain needs is a testing system that actually works now, not a grandiose future vision.

Only yesterday this paper revealed the test-and-trace regime is failing to reach a third of Covid victim contacts, while thousands of people report they cannot access tests.

This is part of a pattern of ineptitude that has plunged our country into a crisis with no end in sight.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced a series of draconian measures to combat a rise in infections – measures we now know many Cabinet members disagreed with. 

Just when there was a mood of cautious optimism, fuelled by tentative signs of economic revival, we face more months of misery and oppression. 

The ‘rule of six’ represents a severe indictment of the Government because our dysfunctional, over-centralised and poorly led state machine has dismally failed to meet the challenge of Covid.

In my new book, Blinded by Corona, I explore in detail the catalogue of errors made, from the shortage of PPE to the dubious modelling adopted by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage). Drivers are seen lining up for tests in Bolton

In my new book, Blinded by Corona, I explore in detail the catalogue of errors made, from the shortage of PPE to the dubious modelling adopted by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage). Drivers are seen lining up for tests in Bolton

Warped political priorities, flawed judgments, institutional complacency, wishful thinking, lack of coherent planning and a culture of secrecy have combined to give Britain the highest Covid death toll in Europe.

And the price paid for ministerial incompetence has been brutal. Older people have been left isolated, families torn apart and tens of thousands of people with cancer, heart disease and life-threatening conditions effectively abandoned by an NHS so relentlessly focused on Covid.

At the same time, the economy has been hammered, with public debt out of control and mass unemployment looming.

As a former Regional Director of Public Health, I despair of the Government’s approach. 

In my new book, Blinded by Corona, I explore in detail the catalogue of errors made, from the shortage of PPE to the dubious modelling adopted by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage).

My concern about Britain’s response has been exacerbated by my work in Bahrain as an adviser to its Covid taskforce. Bahrain’s openness to review and outside scrutiny of its decisions has been reflected in policies such as the early introduction of travel bans, strict quarantine, and an effective track and trace system.

Central to this work was the rapid dissemination of data to healthcare professionals as the world learned more about this novel virus. 

That approach stands in sharp contrast to Public Health England which refused until July 1 to release all available data on the virus, including test results, to local health directors and councils.

It was as if the Battle of Britain was about to be fought with RAF pilots given neither information about enemy planes nor accurate radar reports about where attacks were happening.

Bahrain has had one of the lowest death rates in the world, with just 207 fatalities in a kingdom of almost two million people. Some might argue that this is of little relevance to Britain, given our far greater size. 

But I would point out Liverpool has a similar sized population, and, at the beginning of June, its death rate was five times higher.

If our own Government had adopted the same measured, transparent approach as Bahrain, we might now be on the road to recovery instead of going backwards.

But that would have required very different leadership. This crisis has glaringly exposed the inadequacies of Boris Johnson, whose mix of laziness and inattention to detail meant that he never got a grip on the crisis. Verbiage is no substitute for command.

He failed to attend the first five meetings of the Cobra emergency committee where the virus was discussed and showed a gross irresponsibility when he boasted in February after a hospital visit: ‘I was shaking hands with everybody and, you will be pleased to know, I continue to shake hands.’

Nor, because of splits in his party, has he been able to create a competent Cabinet. It is absurd that Jeremy Hunt, the most experienced health secretary in history and a passionate advocate of testing, is excluded. 

In 1940, when the very survival of Britain was imperilled, Churchill created the broadest political coalition of all-time. Narrowly partisan, Johnson has shown nothing like that quality of leadership.

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced a series of draconian measures to combat a rise in infections – measures we now know many Cabinet members disagreed with. Just when there was a mood of cautious optimism, fuelled by tentative signs of economic revival, we face more months of misery and oppression

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced a series of draconian measures to combat a rise in infections – measures we now know many Cabinet members disagreed with. Just when there was a mood of cautious optimism, fuelled by tentative signs of economic revival, we face more months of misery and oppression

He and his ministers also failed to mobilise the public in the fight against the virus. We had a vast network of community organisations ready to serve but the call to arms was muted from a Government addicted to central control.

That mentality also explains why another precious resource, the public health profession, was never utilised properly.

From Victorian times, Britain had a public health tradition admired across the world. But as budgets were cut and centralisation advanced, local public health directors were sidelined. We needed an effort like the ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk. Instead,we got a couple of badly-skippered cruise liners.

Nor did the Government trust the public, veering towards autocracy rather than engagement, bullying rather than persuasion.

Now that lack of faith is reciprocated. Trust in Government suffered its first blow when Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings and Sage member Professor Neil Ferguson broke the lockdown rules they had helped devised. Now it has evaporated.

The Government says it ‘follows the science’ but too often the science is inconsistent or shaped by politics. It was surely no coincidence the easing of the lockdown on July 4, so-called ‘Independence Day’, was announced at the height of the Cummings fiasco.

The new restrictions that come into force on Monday are a mournful emblem of failure. It didn’t have to be this way. 

The story could have been very different, with an engaged public, galvanised local communities and a responsible government.

That is what Britain had in 1940; sadly, 2020 could not be further from our Finest Hour.

Blinded by Corona: How the Pandemic Ruined Britain’s Health and Wealth and What to Do about It by John Ashton will be published on October 1 at £12.99. 

To order a copy for £11.04 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

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