Why The Buck Stops With Johnson And Hancock On Covid Testing Failures

Operational problems appear rooted in ministers' strategic decisions

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For buck’s sake, fix it

On July 21, Matt Hancock appeared before the Commons science and technology committee and was asked a series of simple but direct questions by its chairman, former cabinet minister Greg Clark.

Who is responsible for setting testing strategy? “The government, so me as Secretary of State,” replied the health secretary. “The process is that testing strategy is then considered by the Covid-O Cabinet Sub-Committee and signed off cross-Government either there or at the Covid-S Cabinet Sub-Committee that is chaired by the Prime Minister.”

Hancock was further pushed on the point. Testing strategy is not set by Public Health England, for example? “No, it is set by me.” It is not set by NHS England? “No, it is my responsibility as part of the government and then it goes through a government clearance process.” The answers were clear: the buck stops (indeed the buck started) with Hancock and Boris Johnson himself.

Fast forward to Tuesday and it was clear why the health secretary looked very, very uncomfortable as MP after MP, from all parties, demanded to know what he was going to do about the severe problems faced by families in getting tests quickly and locally.

In contrast to the “moonshot” rhetoric of just a couple of weeks ago, the tone was alliteratively summed up by Tory MP Jason McCartney: “Please, please, please, before we talk about the moon, can we just focus on local community testing in Marsden, Meltham, Mount and other communities in my constituency?”

Several Tories I’ve talked to felt that Hancock was too blithe and dismissive, and they are highly sceptical about his suggestion that 25% of tests are going to people without symptoms. He did admit that it would now take “weeks” to sort the problem without actually being explicit what the problem was or how he’d solve it.

One solution he did float however was the re-imposition of ‘prioritisation’ aka rationing of testing to those the government thinks needs it most. The NHS comes top, care homes next, and then areas in lockdown. But as I’ve written before, the whole testing saga has laid bare just how little the NHS has been allowed to drive the system - and why some in the health service deeply resent the way ‘NHS Test and Trace’ is an outsider system trashing their brand.

When Hancock opted to expand testing earlier this year, the aim was to get commercial and other labs drafted in to boost capacity. Yet in getting firms like Deloitte to run the new private sector ‘Lighthouse Labs’, it appears that when their ‘capacity’ was actually tested by a surge in demand, they couldn’t cope.

We still don’t know exactly why laboratory bottlenecks have occurred and that lack of transparency infuriates many in the NHS who know they would never be allowed to get away with similar obfuscation. Hancock simply referred to “operational challenges”. Is he hiding behind commercial confidentiality as it affects these private companies? If the reasons for the lab failures are complex, shouldn’t the public still have a right to know?

As it happens, NHS and Public Health England testing capacity has grown impressively from small numbers to around 120,000 a day. They make up more than half of all total capacity now. Crucially, they have 24 hour turnaround times for well over 95% of their tests. Remember it was PHE which was so maligned early in the pandemic for having so few labs, but now it is PHE that is actually saving the private sector (they’ve begged state-run labs for help with processing, the Guardian reports).

Some former Tory MPs believe that Hancock unwittingly put his finger on the problem in July: ministers set the strategy and it is they who have failed to strategise competently. Hancock certainly appears to have failed to cope with demand, having fuelled it by saying anyone ‘in doubt’ about their symptoms should get a test. Most importantly, the return to school and attendant demand from headteachers and parents for tests doesn’t seem to have been factored in at all.

Add in the fact that Hancock, in the middle of a pandemic, decided to give the head of NHS Test and Trace, Dido Harding, a brand new role at the head of a merged new public body, and it’s clear why many think his wounds are self-inflicted. Harding has had a much lower profile since her promotion.

These are all questions that the PM will face at the Liaison Committee on Wednesday. He can’t deflect attention by talking about moonshots or ambitions for the future, when the here and now are so pressing. He may even surprise everyone with a detailed explanation of the operational problems and their solution.

‌But if not, it will fall to the Sci and Tech Committee to get the real answers the following day: it has Dido Harding before it on Thursday.

Quote Of The Day

“The prime minister promised us whack-a-mole but instead his mallet is broken.”

‌– Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

  • The number of people in the UK testing positive hit 3,105. The number of deaths was above 27, the highest for a week, and people on ventilators was the highest number since July.
  • The government began to shift its line on the Internal Market Bill, with senior legal officer Lord Keen claiming that Brandon Lewis “answered the wrong question” when he suggested the legislation would break international law.
  • Keir Starmer will be replaced by deputy Angela Rayner for PMQs this week as he is still waiting on a Covid test result. Boris Johnson is set to go ahead and will not be replaced by Michael Gove.
  • Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the cabinet he was looking at ‘creative’ ways to replace the furlough jobs scheme, with many in business demanding cuts in employers’ National Insurance, business rates and localised help.
  • Home secretary Priti Patel suggested that if two families of four stopped for a chat on the way to the park, that would constitute illegal “mingling” under the Rule of Six regulations. Her media round was, er, problematic.
  • ‌The government has shut down a coronavirus testing centre in Kent because it needs the land to prepare a lorry park for a no-deal Brexit.
  • Former Dover MP and “sexual predator” Charlie Elphicke has been jailed for two years for sexually assaulting two women.

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