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In some ways, it was only a matter of time before Boris Johnson contracted coronavirus. He has had to work at close quarters with key officials and - simply to do his day job - has met an extensive number of people in recent weeks. And, as Professor Neil Ferguson pointed out just last week, “there’s a lot of Covid-19 in Westminster.”
It’s certainly true that it took parliament quite some time to grasp the need for social distancing that the government recommends for everybody else. It was only last week that MPs were told to sit 2m away from each other and even then they often left their benches to crowd round the Speaker’s chair.
There has been unease among many MPs about the slowness to respond and to practice what is preached on the six-foot rule. Some point out that Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg was typically too traditionalist in his approach to the issue of voting hugger-mugger in the lobbies. He told MPs just a fortnight ago that “we should not seek to be a special case for ourselves”. His critics would argue that MPs are a special case, in that they can set an example for the public to follow. But that’s all for another day.
The nation will wish the PM a speedy recovery, as it will Matt Hancock and chief medical officer Chris Whitty. And Michael Gove was keen to stress at today’s No.10 press conference that even though Johnson was working from home (it’s a home-office unlike many), he was “continuing to lead” the response to the virus.
Given that the PM and Hancock only knew for sure they had Covid-19 because they were tested, it was perhaps not a coincidence that Gove proceeded to announce that similar antigen tests would now become much more widely available to front line NHS staff. Those working in intensive care, A&E and GP surgeries will want the roll-out to take place very quickly indeed now.
And it’s the race against time that matters. Prof Ferguson, Prof Whitty and chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance have in the past 24 hours all reiterated that the next three weeks is when they hope to see the peak flatten. But as today’s latest death figures show - 181 was the biggest daily rise so far - the upward curve is getting ominously steep.
NHS England chief Simon Stevens (making his debut at the No.10 briefings) had some impressive evidence of just how fast the system has mobilised in recent weeks. Reconfigured services had meant there were now 33,000 hospital beds available to treat further coronavirus patients. The new Nightingale Hospital in East London (built with remarkable speed) will offer 4,000 beds alone.
One stat from Stevens that really caught my ear was his line that the NHS had freed up the equivalent of 50 new hospitals. Given that the PM himself got elected on a pledge of ‘40 new hospitals’ over 10 years, scrambling capacity for more than that in just one month is great testimony to health service managers and clinicians.
Yet Stevens also gave another most important figure today too. Instead of referring to the overall number of cases of coronavirus, he told us just how many were so serious that they were hospitalised: 6,200 people in England. With that number expected to double every three days, even with more than 30,000 beds freed up, you can see why this will be (as Whitty memorably put it this week), ‘a close run thing’.
And speaking of beds (and the staff that go with them), the real worry will be whether the NHS could have been better prepared. It got precious little play yesterday (apart from in the Guardian) but former chief scientific adviser Sir David King said alarm bells should have rung four years ago. “In 2016 there was a report that indicated our hospitals would not be ready for an epidemic of this kind but it has not been made public,” he said.
Stevens himself certainly fought hard to get more resource into the system, as he was acutely aware of the squeeze under post-2010 austerity. I vividly recall his appearance before the public accounts committee in 2017, when he hit back at Theresa May’s claims the NHS was getting more cash than it had asked for.
To the fury of some Tories, he held up a cutting from the Daily Mail with the headline ‘NHS Trails Rest Of EU For Medics, Beds, Scanners’. He then added: “In 2018-19, real-terms NHS spending per person in England is going to go down, 10 years after Lehman Brothers and austerity began”. May ended up pledging more money, as did Johnson.
Today Stevens gave a further subtle reminder of why the UK’s handling of coronavirus could be a close run thing. “The NHS does need more staff and it does need more hospital beds, and we’ve been saying that for some time [my italics],” he said. No wonder they’ve kept him away from these press conferences until now.
Still, many in the NHS tonight will be relieved at the decision to ramp up testing. If the testing numbers really do accelerate then more staff will be free to stay in work and save lives.
And the PM’s own diagnosis, while not wished on him by anyone, could have the merit of ramming home to the public the need to stay at home and keep their distance. If everyone follows the guidance, that’s worth even more to our health workers than Thursday’s welcome applause in the streets.
Quote Of The Day
“Over the last 24 hours I have developed mild symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus. I am now self-isolating, but I will continue to lead the government’s response via video-conference.”
Boris Johnson reveals he’s got Covid-19
Friday Cheat Sheet
Birmingham Airport is being adapted to erect a temporary mortuary, able to hold 1,500 bodies as a minimum.
The number of people who have now volunteered to help the NHS has reached 700,000. The government’s original target was for 250,000.
Communities secretary Robert Jenrick explained why he included custard creams in 1.5m food boxes for vulnerable people shielding from coronavirus. “I have always been partial to a biscuit, particularly when I am in the house on my own, raiding the cupboards,” he told the Chopper’s Politics podcast.
The EU has cast doubt on claims that an email mix-up was to blame for the UK failing to take part in a Europe-wide scheme for buying ventilators and medical supplies to tackle coronavirus.
The Duchess of Cornwall shared domestic abuse hotlines amid reports of increased violence during the outbreak. “Even if you cannot leave your home, you can call the national domestic abuse helpline or contact one of the domestic violence charities.”
All three Labour leadership candidates have been asked to pre-record videos of themselves delivering victory speeches, ahead of an online-only announcement of the final winner a week on Saturday. There will be no live-stream, only a press release of the results.
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