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Why Matt Hancock Won’t Be Embarrassed If He Misses His Testing Target

By Paul Waugh

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Time, gentlemen, please

Timing in pandemics, like politics, is everything. If you have the right testing and tracing capacity (like Germany and South Korea), you can act quickly to keep the number of deaths down. If you lack that capacity (like the UK and others), your next best hope is to time your lockdown so that you slow the transmission of the disease as swiftly as possible.

Timing can also be a real headache if you set yourself deadlines that you can’t keep. Eager beaver Robert Jenrick is probably regretting his prediction on Saturday that 400,000 much-needed protection gowns would be flown in from Turkey the following day. One RAF jet, several customs issues and three days later, the shipment is still not here.

The actual shipment is tiny in the grand scheme of things and it became an issue solely because it was highlighted by a minister in a No.10 press conference. But for many in government there is a frustration that while it’s right to focus on failures, some of the criticism is misplaced precisely because it is mistimed.

That frustration was palpable today when deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam was asked about the idea of getting the general public to wear masks once the lockdown was eased (as is happening in places like Germany). Van Tam made clear “never jeopardising the supplies of PPE to our health and social care workers” was “a line that we are not going to cross”. His message seemed to be: for God’s sake, let’s focus on the priority of the here and now.

It was of course Van Tam who famously said last month that the number of tests for Covid-19 was “a bit of a side issue”. His point was that social distancing and a lockdown was the best way to slow the rate of new infections. The testing-and-tracing ship had sailed by that point, he seemed to be saying.

That didn’t mean that testing of NHS staff and their families to keep them in work wasn’t important, but it did mean that the wider mass testing issue wasn’t relevant at the time. And when the PM himself declared his own 250,000 tests a day target, saying “this is how we will defeat Covid-19 in the end”, it was that rider ‘in the end’ that mattered most. In the UK, only once the lockdown has really ‘bent the curve’ will mass testing come into its own as an alternative to help fend off a second wave.

That’s why allies of Matt Hancock are particularly furious at the Telegraph criticism from ‘an insider close to Downing Street’ of his target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. With testing capacity now at 39,000, that’s seen as a huge improvement. The two new ‘Lighthouse Labs’ are expected to bring on stream tens of thousands more tests per day, with some in Whitehall expecting a ‘hockey stick’ curve of a rapid increase.

While the 100k target is unlikely to be met in the next eight days, getting to something like 60k or 70k will still be seen as worth it within the Department of Health. Note that No.10 wrapped a protective arm around Hancock today too, with the PM’s official spokesman saying: “We’ve said throughout that [100k] is a government target and we’re working hard to hit it.” As the PM himself has talked of those quarter of a million daily tests, that’s no wonder.

The fact that just 19,000 of the available 39,000 tests were actually carried out yesterday is even seen as a positive by some insiders, perhaps signalling that demand is lowering as the symptom rate among NHS workers and their families slows. The sharp rise in care home deaths however suggests that more urgency is needed in getting those pilots for home-testing turned into a regular programme.‌

Over-promising and under-delivering can indeed be politically embarrassing. But Hancock (like his boss the PM) is not the kind of guy to worry about embarrassment, as long as he can point to wider progress. And that’s also why perhaps he wasn’t particularly fussed today about FCO perm sec’s line that there had been a ‘political decision’ not to take part in the EU medical procurement scheme for ventilators and protective equipment.

Sir Simon McDonald admitted tonight in a ‘clarification’ letter that he had “due to a misunderstanding” “inadvertently and wrongly” made his claim. The UK missed the first four tenders, the mandarin said, but Hancock was right to say he had now agreed to take part in future tenders. Again, however, the health secretary’s main point was that “the impact was zero” anyway because the EU couldn’t get any more protective equipment than the UK.

What Hancock didn’t say, but could have, was that it’s precisely because of the government’s lockdown that the ventilator issue has also become academic. The NHS has not been overwhelmed (unlike Japan’s health service in recent days), and therefore its ventilator capacity has not been exceeded. No minister will openly put it quite like this, but staying at home is proving a more powerful weapon than ventilators, tests, vaccine progress and even masks for the public right now.

The brute force of the lockdown is also framing the biggest timing and sequencing question of all: when to ease up the restrictions. It feels very much like it will be June at the earliest before that will happen. And there will be no target or deadline for ‘returning to normal’ either. No matter how flat that curve gets in coming weeks, normal ain’t coming back.

Quote Of The Day

“You clearly speak Mandarin, with a small m.”

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Tuesday Cheat Sheet

Clinical trials of a coronavirus vaccine will begin on people from this Thursday, Matt Hancock revealed. The COVID-19 vaccine is being developed by scientists at the University of Oxford. The Oxford trial and another at Imperial College London will each get at least another £20m of public money.

Boris Johnson has spoken on the phone to Donald Trump, thanking him for his good wishes when he was unwell and agreeing a “coordinated international response” to Covid-19. The PM is also expected to speak to the Queen by phone this week.

The House of Commons agreed unanimously to adopt ‘hybrid’ working, with TV screens and Zoom calls to allow MPs to ask questions. The House of Lords is unlikely to offer £300-a-day attendance allowance but could pay £150 a day to select committee members, Lords Speaker Lord Fowler suggested.

Jacob Rees-Mogg revealed that the Immigration bill had been shelved. The expected vote on making Sir Bernard Jenkin the new chair of the Liaison Committee is no longer set to go ahead on Wednesday either.

Keir Starmer will take his first PMQs as Labour leader, opposite Dominic Raab, his office said.

Angela Rayner unveiled to the Parliamentary Labour Party her new aides. Tulip Siddiq and Sam Tarry will focus on campaigning, while Kim Johnson and Nav Mishra will be PPSs for her roles as shadow first secretary and party chair respectively. Shadow cabinet minister Marsha de Cordova will work on party BAME and disability issues.

What I’m Reading

America’s Heroism Trap – Slate

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