When, rather more than a month ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care set his arbitrary target of ‘100,000 Covid-19 tests a day’ by April 30th few of us will have appreciated just how literal he was being. What Matt Hancock meant by ‘a day’ was very precise: the one day he meant was April 30th. His triumphant claim of 122,000 tests for that day has been debunked, but, leaving that aside, he will no doubt have been feeling intensely relaxed about the fact that no day since then has seen more than about 80,000 tests – it is not his fault if we were silly enough to imagine that 100,000 ‘a day’ meant every day. It won’t have been his fault either that, even with substantially fewer than 100,000 being conducted every day, we have still had to send 50,000 tests to the USA recently to be processed. So much for his promise of “capacity” for the promised number of tests in the days immediately before April 30th, at a time when he clearly feared (correctly as it happens) that the target wouldn’t be met. And what does Boris do when he realises that the 100,000 tests every day target isn’t being met? You guessed it: he just raises the target to 200,000 tests a day (no doubt forgetting that he fleetingly declared 250,000 as the target several weeks ago.)
If our government’s Covid-19 testing strategy leaves a lot to be desired, its communication strategy, in so far as there is one, has been even worse. Boris announced a grandstanding address to the nation at 7.00pm this evening to tell us what the Government’s exit strategy from lockdown is going to be. This was greeted with a tart suggestion from the Speaker of the House of Commons that it would be a good idea if such statements were delivered in Parliament before being offered to the nation as a whole. We have a very good idea, once again, about what he is going to say, because he went off-piste at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and indicated that there would be some easing of the lockdown tomorrow. This brought our brain-dead tabloids out in a rash of excitement with banner headlines the next day of the order of ‘Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons’ from The Daily Mail, and ‘Happy Monday!’ from The Sun. Ministers had to spend the rest of the week rowing back from any suggestion that there would be a major change of policy.
With a sunny bank holiday weekend predicted, what did the tabloid editorial boards think would happen, other than that people would assume there wouldn’t be a problem with ignoring the soon to be lifted social distancing restrictions? The police were predictably appalled. With well over 30,000 families mourning their loved ones on that ‘Happy Monday’ for The Sun, any increase in infection rates over the next few days should lie heavy of the consciences of Boris and the tabloids, were they to boast such inconveniences. Why address the nation on Sunday evening, after the governments of Wales and Scotland have already made it clear that any tweaking of the lockdown will be pretty minimal? Quite simply, one suspects, because if Boris made his announcement either in Parliament or at his daily Downing Street press conference people would have the opportunity to ask questions. And Boris isn’t good at answering questions.
Barack Obama has described Donald Trump’s federal government’s response to Covid-19 as a ‘chaotic disaster’. The same could be said of our government’s response by influential people in UK, but it won’t be. As a nation, the UK is far too deferential. Reporters from the quality newspapers and broadcast media have been coming in for flak just for asking awkward questions at the daily Downing Street press conferences. The official opposition knows that it needs to be extremely careful not to sound conflictual, rather than bi-partisan, in its approach to the government’s handling of the pandemic. The general attitude seems to be: ‘Don’t be nasty to Boris. He’s just been in hospital, and he is doing his best.’ Never mind that ‘his best’ has also been a chaotic disaster responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands and thousands of people. Even allowing for instinctive deference being a national characteristic, I still find myself wondering how on earth, in view of the number of deaths, the testing debacle and the communication deficiencies, it is even remotely possible that public approval ratings of the way the government has handled the crisis can have steadily risen by 17% as the disaster has unfolded.