Owl thinks it appropriate to draw attention to two heavy weight editorials today – from both the Guardian and the Times, reproduced below. Grim reading for the Government.
The Guardian view on governing in a crisis: level with the public www.theguardian.com
Politicians deserve some benefit of the doubt in extreme times, but to retain respect they need to be more candid about the challenges.
The creation of NHS Nightingale, assembling a 4,000-bed emergency hospital in just two weeks, is an important milestone. It is not fashionable to give ministers the benefit of the doubt, but the circumstances should allow the presumption of decent motive. They are trying to protect people. That does not make them immune from error, nor should it insulate them from criticism. It is possible to applaud government efforts without ignoring poor judgment.
It appears clear that the Covid-19 virus spread faster and wider than might have been the case, because Downing Street underestimated the risks and moved too slowly to a regime of mass testing, by which point materials were harder to procure. Shortages of personal protective equipment, for which health and social care workers are now desperate, arose from a failure to anticipate demand weeks ago, or even years. A pandemic was listed among disaster scenarios for Whitehall contingency planning long before the current outbreak. Yet testing, isolation and quarantine – basic public health interventions – were barely on the ministerial agenda.
The facts are that progress on testing is slower than people have been led to expect, and frontline workers feel unprotected, despite promises of prompt action. There is no need to wait before holding the government to account for mismanagement of expectations. Promises have been broken and clarity about the reasons for delay have not been forthcoming. On insufficient testing, an internal government briefing note contains the mystifying defence that the World Health Organization’s instruction to “test, test, test” was aimed at another audience. “Not all countries have the same infrastructure as the UK,” the note says, “and there are countries that the WHO needs to press on testing.” The implication is that the advice was for less developed nations, which is neither true nor relevant to the question of why Britain is not moving faster. Germany has been testing on a scale that far outstrips the rest of Europe.
What the government needs is consistency about its story and to admit mistakes in real time. There are questions for ministers to answer over the provision of protective equipment. We are nowhere near the 250,000 daily tests for coronavirus infections the prime minister promised. This figure looked like the worst kind of spin when Downing Street admitted on Wednesday that only 2,000 people out of 500,000 frontline NHS workers had been tested for coronavirus. Similarly, spraying around claims of 3.5m serological tests – to gauge background rates of exposure and immunity – further eroded trust, given there is little evidence of them. Ministers are making promises they cannot keep.
Politicians might inspire more confidence by admitting the scale of the challenge instead of pretending that more is being done than can realistically be achieved. Jeremy Hunt has been the government’s most effective critic, perhaps because he was health secretary when the last national pandemic flu exercise was run – and the NHS was found wanting. Yet Mr Hunt did not upgrade the health service’s capacity to cope effectively.
Downing Street’s communications strategy through the crisis has been a mix of candour and opacity. There have been moments of refreshing honesty – about the likely severity of what is to come – and a laudable public deference to science. But, under pressure, there has also been a notable default back to bad habits of waffle and misdirection.
Politicians instinctively avoid admitting when they have no answers to a question, for fear it shows weakness, but the greater danger right now is corroding public confidence with spun lines that cannot hold. This unusual situation requires a level of respect for government efforts that is unfamiliar in peacetime. But the quid pro quo is that government also respects the people with clear, honest accounts of the challenges and its decisions. So far it has largely not. There is an understandable pressure to feed a public appetite for information. Unduly optimistic claims about PPE and testing appear to be driven by the view that audiences need good news. They do, but not if it later turns out to have been fake news.
The Times view on Britain’s response to coronavirus: Testing Negative www.thetimes.co.uk
Each death from Covid-19 is a tragedy, and the daily numbers in Britain are accelerating. Recorded fatalities increased yesterday by 563 to a total of 2,352. To stem the spread of contagion requires a huge expansion in testing, yet the government was plainly caught unawares by the disease.
This country is lagging other western democracies. Boris Johnson has said that he hopes to reach a target of 250,000 tests daily for coronavirus infections. At present the number is less than 10,000. It urgently needs ramping up. With the prime minister and the health secretary in self-isolation, Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, indicated a target of 25,000 tests a day by the middle of this month. Meanwhile Germany is already testing 70,000 a day. Assessing where the government is failing is vital to protecting lives.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called on governments to implement mass testing. Yet Covid-19 was deemed only a “moderate risk” to Britain by the government’s scientific advisers as recently as five weeks ago, just as cases in Italy began to spike upwards. It was a profound misjudgment of the risk; Britain is now in lockdown.
Politicians need to heed expert advice but it is also their role to think ahead about possible risks and use their judgment. Scientists will rightly change their advice if the data changes. The danger for politicians is that they are made to look indecisive and prone to U-turns. If the scientists early on were telling the government there was only a moderate risk, it would have been shrewd to anticipate the worst, just in case, and take appropriate measures. Instead they opted to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus rather than suppress it. The strategy had to be abandoned when it was clear that the virus could no longer be contained. Testing swiftly became crucial to government strategy. Yet the new approach has been beset with confusion and muddle.
It makes sense that NHS staff should be the first to be tested so that they can get on with caring for patients. Yet by yesterday only 2,000 frontline NHS staff out of about half a million had been tested. And even the currently inadequate capacity is not being fully used. According to the government, testing capacity stands at 12,750 a day, yet the total is not even close to meeting that. Moreover, photographs of one drive-in site at Chessington, Surrey, showed it standing almost empty.
Chris Witty, the chief medical officer for England, has said that “the one thing that is worse than no test is a bad test”, one that may give a false reading. The population would readily understand this caution if it were combined with a drive to acquire the equipment and build the infrastructure for good tests. Yet the government has been on the defensive. One official pleaded that Britain cannot emulate Germany because it lacks a similar 70-year history of industrial policy.
No countries foresaw the coronavirus crisis but some were better prepared than others. Having experienced the Sars epidemic in 2003, South Korea had substantial testing equipment to hand. Britain and others failed to learn that lesson and siren voices have been consistently ignored over the years. For Britain, the initial failure to gauge the nature of the crisis has left the country scrambling to catch up. The prime minister needs to show decisive and even ruthless leadership to lift the nation out of its bureaucratic muddle and morass. When Britain faced wartime peril in 1940, Winston Churchill looked outside the ranks of politicians to appoint Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate, to take charge of aircraft production. It proved a tonic for public confidence and a spur to government action. Having misjudged the greatest peacetime crisis in a century, the government will need to demonstrate a coherent strategy and show that it understands the scale of the task.