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When will the public start to notice that the government isn’t doing very well on Covid-19?

April 18th, 2020

By international standards, the British response has been poor

If we’d been told a year ago that Boris Johnson would be prime minister, we could have accepted that as plausible. Theresa May’s authority was hopelessly undermined and Boris was well-placed to succeed her.

Had we been told that he would now be sitting on an 80-seat majority, we might have been a little more taken aback but Johnson does have a record as an effective campaigner and Corbyn was suffering record-breakingly bad satisfaction ratings.

Had we been told that Johnson’s Tories would now be polling well up into the 50s we’d have been astonished and might have assumed some extraordinary Brexit triumph. (Reminder: Brexit has not gone away and the ridiculous decision to not request an extension in the current circumstances makes it highly likely that the government will end up with a take-it-or-leave-it choice, neither of which will be good – particularly as the EU, aware of this predicament, will probably push too hard again).

But had we been told that the Tories would be polling in the 50s in the midst of a severe recession, we’d think that our voice from the future was either off its head or – as is the case – the country was in the midst of a great crisis which had come from outside, and the people were rallying round what passes for the flag.

It does help the government that there’s no meaningful opposition. Labour, despite having just elected someone more credible than Corbyn has decided to throw that advantage away by indulging in a new round of infighting. That said, while Starmer looks and sounds more prime ministerial, he doesn’t have the passion or sense of grievance that Corbyn had and which so motivated his followers; it’s far from impossible that he would have made more of the current situation than his successor has. His criticisms have been technical rather than rooted in real-life cases.

Nor is it just Labour. The Lib Dems have a temporary leader who’s already served almost as long than their last permanent one and has another year ahead of him yet in the role. He has not been heard from. And the SNP’s criticisms are hard to land when there’s so much co-decision taking.

And yet there is plenty of criticism to be made. If I were the opposition – or indeed, any MP wanting to make sure my constituents were as well protected as possible – I’d be focussing on three areas.

Firstly, why is PPE in such short supply and in too many cases, of inadequate quality? Secondly, why was the decision to lock down delayed as long as it was, despite the evidence from elsewhere and the knowledge of how many cases had been identified in the UK at the time? And thirdly, why does the UK lag behind so many other comparable countries in the proportion of its citizens tested, with even key healthcare workers – who could be spreading the disease round to very vulnerable people – unable to access testing?

It’s true that this has been a very rapidly evolving crisis and some delays in response are inevitable. But it’s not unreasonable to compare how the UK has done with the reactions in other countries and on that basis, it’s not good.

Every G7 country bar Japan, plus every western European country has conducted more tests per unit of population. That cannot just be down to initial industrial lab capacity, as was claimed in relation to why Germany was doing so much better on that score. Similarly, the failure to effectively procure and distribute PPE for key workers does not appear to have been as much of an issue in other countries – though I’m reliant on fairly scant media reports to conclude that.

More firmly grounded was the tardy response in shutting down physical interactions, including not bothering to hold an initial Cobra meeting until after the weekend, and then failing to take a lead in preventing mass gatherings at, for example, sporting events. The instinct not to interfere is a good one but it can be taken too far.

Not all of this is necessarily the fault of ministers (though some must be); there must be at least the suspicion that the officials were overly cautious in advising ministers – who have repeatedly said, without contradiction, they’ve taken the expert advice – to take the dramatic steps necessary. And while we can all applaud the front-line workers each Thursday who are putting themselves at risk in dealing with the crisis (an aside: they do this outside of pandemics too), there are questions to be asked about NHS logistical supply and usage policy for PPE, body-bags and other essential equipment. There’ve been too many stories of hoarding and waste for there not to be improvement possible.

Indeed, there seems on the face of it to be a distinct lack of imagination from the experts in general – and hence rather too much respect being paid. Sadiq Khan is quite right to raise the question of face masks. Many other countries have made far greater use of these and are suffering far fewer infections and deaths. This may well not be a coincidence. If not, that evidence from abroad should be informing policy. (As an aside, the traditional Westminster media is doing a poor job itself of coming up with imaginative questions and probing on these issues; it’s notable how it’s often the unusual invitees to the 5pm press conferences who ask the best questions).

But this is showing in the numbers. Among countries with a population of over a million, Britain now ranks fifth-worst globally for Covid-19 deaths per unit population, behind only Belgium, Spain, Italy and France – and is rising faster than all but Belgium.

As yet, the public haven’t noticed, probably because the information isn’t being widely publicised and that failure runs counter to the narrative of the tremendous work being done by the front-line NHS staff (and, for that matter, many who are in supporting roles). But at some point surely questions will be asked and comparative figures published more prominently. Then what?

David Herdson