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One step beyond?
When the final political reckoning is made on how the UK government dealt with the Covid crisis, it will be difficult for Boris Johnson to hide from the sheer number of deaths. And he and his ministers are acutely aware of the charge likely to be levelled at them: you went into lockdown too slowly, and came out of lockdown too quickly.
With some scientists expressing worries in recent days on the latter point, it was all the more striking when Matt Hancock opened his latest No.10 press conference with this plea to the public: “If there is one message that we have for today it is that it is incredibly important for anybody who has symptoms of coronavirus, a cough or a fever or a change in your sense of taste or smell that you get a test.”
Was the health secretary trying to tell us that he feared people were getting ill but avoiding tests? If so, was that because a chunk of the English population worry about being forced to self-isolate for seven days? Or because they don’t want to land their friends and relatives with a 14 day bout of fresh quarantine under NHS Test And Trace? Or both?
Sadly, he couldn’t give us any detailed figures for how many people had been tested or traced under the system that was introduced last week to great fanfare. We learned that “the vast majority” were being traced, the scheme was “successful”, but there were no statistics to back any of this up. Expect Keir Starmer to raise just that in PMQs on Wednesday.
There was a further hint from Hancock that the numbers would be quite low, but he was keen to stress that this was not a negative but a positive as it showed the spare capacity in the system (a bit like Nightingale Hospitals being a positive, even though they weren’t needed in the end). Once the system is indeed ready to combat local outbreaks, he may be proved right.
But there was another sign that Hancock is far from relaxed about the gradual moves out of lockdown. When he said the public should “not step too far”, there was a real note of unease in his voice. That was unsurprising given all the weekend reports of packed beaches, police interventions and fraying tempers. The lockdown exit so far may feel like one small step for Matt, but it’s already a giant leap for Matt’s kind (young Englishmen eager to enjoy the summer sun).
The difficulty is that without some of the numbers on test-and-trace, and without it being fully operational at local level, the government does indeed look like it’s rushing its way out of lockdown. In statistics, the idea of ‘confidence levels’ is crucial to understanding, but the requirement of confidence is pretty key in politics and public health messaging too.
As I reported last week, some at the UK Statistics Authority are still concerned at the way Hancock has responded to its warning that the figures put out on testing are far from clear. Among those concerns are the difference between capacity and tests actually done, and especially on the way swab kits sent in the post are included in the statistics. If you drill down into the latest stats, some 42,000 ‘tests’ are actually tests sent in the post, but we have no assessment of what proportion are returned or correctly administered.
Another much-vaunted plank of the government’s strategy, the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), is also not quite ready yet either. Hancock could only say “we are getting it stood up, making sure all of the information flows come to it..it’s being formulated as we speak”. No.10 admitted today it was still in the process of making it “fully operational”.
A clue to the way clinicians suspect they are not being fully consulted about the move out of lockdown was underlined when NHS England’s primary care director Nikki Kanani tweeted yesterday. It was clear she was taken by surprise by the announcement this weekend that the most vulnerable groups could leave their shielded homes ahead of schedule. Kanani, don’t forget, appeared alongside Hancock only a few weeks ago for a No10 press conference.
As for baby steps to normality, primary school pupils began a tentative return to class today. But as MPs prepare to return to parliament tomorrow, there is another sense that the government is running too fast out of lockdown. A long queue of MPs, already dubbed “the Rees-Mogg conga” by shadow chief whip Nick Brown, will snake its way through the Commons as they vote in person on amendments to retain remote voting.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle is clearly unhappy (he told the Times this weekend “what we’re doing is taking that franchise away and that does worry me”) but the government looks like it has the numbers (just seven Tories signed the Procedure Committee amendment tonight). The new system takes 30 minutes for each vote and in a final test today two clerks (acting as substitute MPs) managed to cast votes the wrong way.
Still, maybe ministers should be careful what they wish for. When MPs are gathered in person (even socially distanced), they plot and scheme even more effectively than on WhatsApp. And there is a growing Tory backbench rebellion over plans to impose a 14-day quarantine on travellers from overseas next week. There will be no vote (the policy is enacted via secondary legislation on a ‘negative’ procedure), but the anger is palpable enough to possibly make No.10 think again.
Why? Because for many weary Brits, the prospect of no foreign summer holiday could itself prove a step too far.
Quote Of The Day
“Do not step too far, the disease is not done yet. We mustn’t throw away the progress that has been made.”
Matt Hancock cautions the public not to outpace the lockdown easing
Monday Cheat Sheet
Matt Hancock announced there were 1,570 confirmed coronavirus cases on June 1, “the lowest number since March 25” - two days after lockdown began.
Primary school pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 went back to class for the first time in months, although the ASCL union estimated that the numbers returning varied from 40% to 70%.
A YouGov/Times poll showed the Tory lead over Labour has stabilised and is now back up to 10 points. On the question of who would make the best prime minister, 37% said Boris Johnson, but 32% said Keir Starmer, the narrowest it has been. 43 % thought the Tories were incompetent, up from 27% in early April,
A No.10 spokesman said the police would be expected to “exercise discretion” when enforcing rules that technically make it illegal for a couple to have sex indoors, if they are not living together.
Ashdown House, a 180-year old private prep school once attended by Boris Johnson, is to shut down as a result of the impact of the coronavirus on pupil numbers.
People queued for hours at IKEA stores across England as DIY, furniture and cycle shops all reopened. Primark announced it would reopen on 15 June.
Jeremy Corbyn has questioned the independence of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that is investigating allegations of Labour anti-Semitism. He told Middle East Eye that the Tory government had decided to “make it part of the government machine”.
Liverpool football team ‘took the knee’ in a gesture of solidarity with the BlackLivesMatter protests in the US in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
Attorney General Suella Braverman extended legal rules for the Grenfell Tower Inquiry so witnesses cannot refuse to answer questions on the basis that to do so would risk self-incrimination. It also means that their answers cannot be used in evidence in any future prosecution against them
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost.