Priti Patel squirmed her way through a series of brutal interviews on Tuesday morning, as she tried to defend the government’s Test and Trace system in the face of mounting criticism and reports of massive failings.
People in hotspot areas and even NHS staff are being forced to stay off work and self-isolate because they cannot access coronavirus tests for themselves or family members, health leaders have warned.
Helpfully, Sir John Bell who has been overseeing the government’s antibody test programme and advising ministers, told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme exactly what is currently going wrong.
He said: “I think what’s going wrong is the second wave.
“A month ago they had spare capacity in testing – significant spare capacity – but I think what has been underestimated was the speed at which the second wave would arrive, but also the pressure put on the system from children returning to school, and the testing demands associated with that, and people increasingly out and about.
“So, I think they are definitely behind the curve in terms of getting the necessary tests for what we need today.”
But in stark contrast to Bell’s candour, the home secretary insisted tests were available and everything was largely OK.
The ‘reality’ in Bolton
One particular area of concern is Bolton where the infection rate is the highest in England, and residents have complained of long delays in trying to book a test and in some cases being offered appointments in other areas of the UK.
Responding to the criticisms put forward by BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker, Patel said: “Well I think the reality is...”
Walker interrupted: “That is the reality. You can’t get a test in Bolton at the moment. In fact, in the worst 10 coronavirus hotspots in England at the moment, there are no tests available.”
Undeterred, Patel continued to dispute the facts on the ground: “Well you’ve already heard me say tests are available. You’ve heard me say as well particularly in local lockdown areas, I’ve seen this myself, I’ve seen the teams working on this.
“Mobile testing is going in, capacity is going into local areas where lockdowns have been undertaken and are taking place. So it’s wrong to say tests are not available, new booking slots are being made available every single day, mobile testing slots are being made available and on top of that, home testing kits are being issued across the country but specifically in local lockdown areas.”
Dan Walker - The people in Bolton can't get coronavirus tests?— Haggis_UK 🇬🇧 🇪🇺 (@Haggis_UK) September 15, 2020
Priti Patel - Test are available... it's wrong to say tests are not available..
Head in sand about the testing fiasco. #BBCBreakfast pic.twitter.com/QafT5OBZqh
Mingling and grousing
After the already infamous ‘Rule of Six’ came into force yesterday, Patel was asked if two families of four stopping for a chat on the way to the park constituted “mingling”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is mingling. I think it is absolutely mingling.
“You have got to put this in the context of coronavirus and keeping distance, wearing masks.
“The rule of six is about making sure that people are being conscientious and not putting other people’s health at risk.”
Patel added: “Mingling is people coming together. That is my definition of mingling.”
single and ready to get arrested if I mingle— Esther Webber (@estwebber) September 15, 2020
Commentators were quick to highlight a story HuffPost UK revealed yesterday which described how the government has exempted grouse shooting and other “hunting” with guns from the restrictions.
In response to one question on LBC, Patel suggested someone could “theoretically” have a birthday party on a grouse shoot.
Scenario 1— Paul Johnson (@paul__johnson) September 15, 2020
-Family meeting friends on street could be ‘illegal mingling’ and might be fined by police, says Priti Patel #r4today
-30 friends gather to shoot grouse.
Perfectly ok. Go ahead
Priti Patel tells #Today if a family of 4 comes across another family of 4 in the street who they know & they stop for a chat they are “mingling” & have committed a criminal offence. This is complete nonsense & we risk a total breakdown on #COVID19 rule compliance.— Anna Soubry (@Anna_Soubry) September 15, 2020
Nick Ferrari on the Rule of Six: "I could have a birthday party on a grouse shoot?"— Theo Usherwood (@theousherwood) September 15, 2020
Home Secretary Priti Patel: "Theoretically, you might want to give it a go. It's not my cup of tea, I will be honest about that."
Mixed blessings for Priti Patel’s neighbours
Speaking to Sky News, Patel said she’s “rarely at home” these days, but added: “I saw something that I thought was inappropriate then, quite frankly, I would call the police.”
Clearly describing the act of dobbing in neighbours, she said: “It’s not dobbing in neighbours,
She added: “It’s all about us taking personal responsibility.”
Watch out, if you live next door to Priti Patel 👀— Pippa Crerar (@PippaCrerar) September 15, 2020
“If I saw something that I thought was inappropriate, then quite frankly I would effectively call the police. It's not about dobbing in neighbours, I think it's all about us taking personal responsibility.“
Dobbing in the government
Patel was also forced to defend the controversial clauses in the Internal Market Bill, which last week the government admitted would break the law in a “limited and specific way”.
In an exchange with LBC’s Nick Ferrari and after admitting she would call the police if she saw people breaking the ‘Rule of Six’, Patel was asked what the public should in other cases of law-breaking.
Ferrari said: ”“Who do I call when the government breaks the law?”
Patel replied: “I think you’re conflating two fundamentally separate issues. You are speaking about acts of Parliament and interpretations of international treaties and domestic law.
“The two are completely separate.”
At least we know she is capable of honesty "in a limited and specific way"— CuparArab (@CuparArab) September 15, 2020
And back to those pesky reports on testing...
The home secretary also faced a grilling over testing on the BBC’s Today programme, where she still refused to give a straight answer on why hotspots are having problems with testing. Here’s part of her interview with Mishal Husain:
Patel: “At a local level... Public Health England (PHE) is working with trusts to prioritise individuals and make sure that those who absolutely need the test are getting the test.”
Host Mishal Husain: ”But they’re not home secretary. Council leaders in Bolton are in the highest levels of prevalence in the country and they are having problems with testing.”
Patel: “Well I think the key thing to point out right now is it’s PHE working not just with the NHS but with local authorities to pinpointing the actual hotspots. The government has data down to the postcode, where the hotspots are.
Husain: “So why is it going wrong then?”
Patel: “Well mobile testing units are being put in place. This is an issue of capacity and demand.
Husain: “Yes, but we knew there would be more demand when children went back to school, didn’t we?”
Patel” Of course, and that demand is growing and that capacity is growing on a daily basis.”
Husain: “Just not the point it’s actually needed...”
Patel: “The capacity is growing.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.