While the government slips out its negotiation position with the EU, the coronavirus crisis continues. The Brexit crisis can wait – it will have its day, if there’s anything left.
Meanwhile, our current crisis seems to be moving into a new phase. As the pressure mounts, the key players are looking over their shoulders and anticipating the public inquiry to come. And if there is honour amongst thieves, the same cannot be said for our esteemed public servants. The cracks are beginning to show.
For the moment, the major fault line seems to be between the politicians and scientists and, in the blue corner is work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey (pictured). Chatting with Sky News, she took the opportunity to defend her government’s position, saying that “wrong” advice at start of the epidemic could have led to mistakes.
This intervention has been enthusiastically picked up by the legacy media, not least The Times (paywall), this paper turning Coffey’s diffident “could” into a suggestion that mistakes made by the government in its early response to the coronavirus crisis “were because ministers got the ‘wrong’ advice from scientists”.
Defending her own position, Coffey had told Sky News: “You can only make judgments and decisions based on the information and advice that you have at the time”, then adding: “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision”.
Nevertheless, she did concede that: “We are getting advice from the scientists. It is for ministers to decide on policy”, then claiming: “We have tried to take, every step of the way, making sure that we listen to the science, understand the science, and make decisions based on that”.
Elsewhere, Coffey – who seems to have had a busy morning – explained further to the BBC about the problems with the testing regime. ‘We had a small amount of capacity at the very start”, she said. “It was solely based on Public Health England’s capability of being able to have about 2,000 tests a day”.
From The Times, though, we learn that Coffey’s comments came after the incoming head of the Royal Society had warned ministers to stop saying “we are simply doing what the scientists tell us”.
This is Sir Adrian Smith, who takes the view that the “extraordinary amounts of uncertainty” with new viruses has been played down in a political environment where ministers felt they needed to appear decisive. Thus, he concludes, any backlash over the handling of the epidemic would not be aimed at the scientists because politicians made the decisions.
“The danger”, Smith thinks, “is if the politicians keep saying, ‘We’re simply doing what the scientists tell us’. That could be awkward. Politicians ultimately must make the decisions”.
“There will be a post-mortem on this”, he avers. “But I think the use of science and the re-establishment of experts is something that won’t go away. And I think it won’t be the backlash that, you know, the scientists, got it wrong”. It had been a failing of the government’s coronavirus strategy that much of the decision-making had gone on behind closed doors.
However, these two are not the only players in the blame game. The Mail is exulting in the label “boffin blame game”, citing Dame Angela McLean, chief science adviser at the Ministry of Defence at yesterday’s Downing Street presser.
She says that ministers dropped vital coronavirus contact tracing too early in the outbreak because Public Health England (PHE) “did not have capacity” to test enough people. This is seen as “furious finger-pointing” over the failures in the handling of the epidemic, with McLean saying that the advice given to ministers to abandon efforts to track individual cases “took account of the testing that was available”.
“With the testing [capacity] we had, the right thing to do was to focus it on people who were really sick in hospital … it was the right thing to do at the time”, she said, leading to the formal community testing programme being abandoned on 12 March.
Then entering the fray was Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE. In front of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, he denied responsibility for the UK’s testing strategy, saying that this had been led by the Department of Health and Social Care.
As to allegations that PHE prevented tests in private labs, Selbie insisted that “any testing facility with the right technology” could have conducted them after security restrictions had been lowered on 3 March. “PHE did not constrain or seek to control any laboratory either public, university or commercial from conducting testing”, he claimed.
These, though, are only the latest in the war of words that seems set to become increasingly bitter, as the government fails to get a grip on the Covid-19 epidemic and looks for scapegoats.
Already, we’ve seen the opening shots from the Science and Technology Committee, which in its recent letter to prime minister Johnson had a pop at PHE, declaring that its failure to publish the evidence on which its testing policy was based “is unacceptable for a decision that may have had such significant consequences”.
Yet, with this, as with much of the speculation, there is a seam of intellectual laziness and superficiality which is dogging inquiries. The Science and Technology Committee, for instance, prefers to rely on oral evidence from the great and the good, instead of getting stuck in to a review of all the evidence – much of which is in document form.
There is also excessive reliance on the media “take”, with the “secret squirrel” findings dominating much of the thinking. Most commentators are also constrained by a timeframe which is far too tight, rarely going back further than the 2016 Exercise Cygnus.
Most of all, I suspect, there is a very limited grasp of the way governments actually work, and almost no understanding of the complex bureaucracy of the NHS, its funding arrangements and its governance. This 2013 report, for instance, pointed to the difficulties which PHE might have in a pandemic, where it has neither the authority nor the budget to carry out major sampling exercises or contact tracing.
Crucially, any evaluation of the government’s performance must look at a timeline which goes back to 2005, and embraces multiple plans produced and agreed by successive governments. When it comes to the testing, therefore, the likes of Angela McLean have turned reality upside down. It was not a lack of capacity which led the government to abandon community testing and contact tracing.
Working to the pandemic influenza plan as it was, there was never any intention of mounting an extensive community testing programme. It was always intended that, once the detection and assessment phases were over, community testing should be ended. That was a fundamental part of the plan, in place since 2011. Thus, there was no capacity for extensive community testing, because it wasn’t thought necessary.
As for some of the other seemingly inexplicable actions of the government – such as allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead – its stance had been long agreed, going back to 2011 when the “science” was settled and the rationale published.
Here in the “Scientific Summary of Pandemic Influenza & its Mitigation”, we see the Department of Health state that “there is no convincing evidence that major organised sporting events are associated with significantly increased influenza transmission in those attending the event”, which was precisely the finding that guided ministers.
To frustrate the “secret squirrel” merchants, though, this scientific evidence review is published, and if media and political researchers got off their backsides and followed the extensive library of published material, much of that which is currently speculation would become clear.
Oddly enough, Sir Adrian Smith opines that, when it comes to government advice, “openness and transparency would have been by far the better option”, evidently unaware of quite how much has actually been published. It is much easier it is to complain about secrecy than spend the time reading the public record. Even Hunt (paywall) is playing this game.
Nevertheless, having different commentators blindly lashing out, each airing their own particular brands of ignorance, provides just the sort of material that the legacy media loves. There is enough fuel here for endless episodes of the soap opera, which is why we are going to see a great deal more of this.