6th June 2020
Boris Johnson – increasingly out of touch
It is hard to believe, with the UK death rate from COVID-19 the second highest in the world, topping the 40,000 mark according to official figures, that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, can declare himself “very proud” of the government’s record on reducing the spread of the virus.
No one but a dyed in the wool Tory MP, financial backer or voter can believe such nonsense when the government approach to the pandemic has been calamitous from the start. The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic on 11th March. The very next day, 12th March, the UK government stopped the limited test and trace programme it had in place, then proceeded to wait until 23rd March before introducing any significant lock down measures.
This was in spite of having the advantage of seeing what was happening in China, South Korea and Italy, giving the government time to respond and put measures in place quickly. Part of the abject failure of the Tories’ response to the crisis is purely ideological. Local government officers in public health and environmental health teams have well established test and trace practices which could have been activated at a local level quickly and efficiently.
The government however chose to go with a centralised approach, looking to by pass local government, and hand out contracts to its private sector pals. Millions have been spent on private sector contracts without any assessment of value or capability in order to be seen to be acting quickly. The UK death rate is the grim reality of the outcome of that approach.
The current test and trace system, which the government is now heralding as being central to its strategy, is a case in point. Private sector company Serco is one of several firms employed to recruit a network of 25,000 tracers as part of the government scheme. The programme is already way behind time and is not expected to be at “world class level” until September or October.
It is critical that test results are turned around in 24 hours if contacts are to be traced in order to isolate the virus. The government continues to equivocate on the percentage of tests returned in that timescale, though it claims 92% are back within 48 hours. Even if that is the case, all the evidence suggests that it is simply not fast enough.
Serco Chief Executive, Rupert Soames, seems less concerned about the death rate than the prospect of future profits from NHS contracts. In an e mail to staff this week Soames said,
“If it succeeds…it will go a long way in cementing the position of private sector companies in the public sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”
As an opportunity to undermine, Soames’ e mail is something of a gift! The purpose of test and trace is to save lives, not to boost the bank balance of the Serco shareholders.
In an attempt to bring attention to the human loss in the pandemic 27 eminent health professionals, in a letter to The Guardian this weekend, question the validity of the government’s approach, stating,
“If, as seems probable, there is a second wave this winter, many more will die unless we find quick, practical solutions to some of the structural problems that have made implementing an effective response so difficult. These include the fragmentation, in England, of the NHS, public health and social care; the failure of those in Westminster to engage with local government and devolved nations; the channels by which scientific evidence feeds into policy; and an inability to plan for necessary goods and services, and procure them.”
As an indictment of the government’s approach this could hardly be more comprehensive. Yet Boris Johnson is “very proud” and Rupert Soames has his eye on the company balance sheet.
Quite why this is not proclaimed as a national scandal from every news bulletin and newspaper headline is a scandal in itself. However, the Tory press cannot bring themselves to face the reality of the government’s incompetence, while the BBC continues to play a role which can only be described as supine when it comes to journalistic credibility.
On the day the official death toll passed the 40,000 people, on the official count, the BBC reflected nothing by way of outrage but instead leavened its reporting with an emphasis on the falling rate of infections in the community.
The government has lost further credibility with the health sector, should that be possible, by unilaterally announcing that from 15th June, hospital visitors and outpatients must wear face coverings and staff must use surgical masks. A major operational challenge for NHS Trusts around the country about which they were not consulted.
The dash to shore up company profits rather than save lives will take another step on 15th June with non-essential shops being allowed to open, as long as COVID secure measures are in place. Following the easing of restrictions on outdoor activity, which saw many rush to the beaches in May, and the option to open schools from 1st June, there is a growing sense that the government is going too far, too soon.
The science around the pandemic is still too uncertain to proceed with anything but extreme caution. The evidence already is that there are disproportionate impacts upon black and ethnic minority and disadvantaged communities. Poorer housing conditions, fewer life opportunities and, as a consequence, a greater incidence of underlying health conditions, all play a part in the disproportionate impact of the virus.
It’s a fair bet not many Serco shareholders will fall into this bracket. We can only hope that Boris Johnson’s ‘pride’ is of the variety which precedes a fall.