What were you doing on 30 April 2018? No, me neither but I know what Amber Rudd was doing – she was clearing her desk as Home Secretary having tendered her resignation. She had misled Parliament over Windrush deportation targets and despite her being misinformed by Home Office officials she took ultimate responsibility and acted with integrity. Isn’t that what you do as an MP? Make a significant error and you fall on your sword or get invited to revisit the job centre?
Not any more it seems. Take failing Grayling who firstly demonstrated an inhumane streak and incompetence as Justice Secretary banning prisoners from receiving books – overturned by the courts. Then his coup de grace as Transport Secretary was to award a £13.8 million contract for a ferry service to a company with no ships. But all is forgiven by Boris if you support Brexit and Grayling was all but offered the opportunity of a hat trick of blunders being lined up as the new chair of the intelligence and security committee but fortunately a modicum of democracy was restored when colleagues decided otherwise. Then there’s conduct and example – Dominic Cummings visit to Barnard Castle for an eye test is well documented but less is made of Robert Jenrick’s earlier breech of lockdown travel restrictions in order to deliver his parents’ medications – really? Every pharmacy I know will deliver to those who are in need. Not to mention his rather dubious / illegal fast-tracking of Richard Desmond’s planning application – a £45 million saving for a £12,000 donation to the Tories amounts to good business for Desmond but questionable judgement by Jenrick. But all is well ‘cos he supports Brexit. Then more recently Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary whose only experience in the field was in his upbringing (but don’t worry, the country’s had enough of experts) made such a pig’s ear of the exams that it was less a matter of if but more of when he’d resign….or not. Surely Boris will show him the door – except that Brexit support overrules crass inability. And fortunately there’s a let -out clause called Ofqual. Despite Williamson’s directive that grade inflation was a red line no-no and Ofqual producing an algorithm to ensure that applies Gavin ducks responsibility. It’s left to Sally Collier the CEO of Ofqual to resign and for Boris Johnson to sack Jonathan Slater who was the most senior civil servant at the Department of Education stating a need for “fresh leadership” – right idea Boris, wrong man I’d say. Do you spot a theme – it’s not about ability, experience or integrity but more a matter of passing the Tory Toady Test. Get behind BJ, speak up for Brexit and nothing else matters.
But what about Covid which is our primary focus? In fairness to the Government they have been dealing with an unprecedented (surely that will be word of the year) situation. Some things have gone well – the speed of knocking up Nightingale Hospitals was very impressive albeit they were underutilised, Rishi’s furlough scheme has been a lifeline to so many people (the sting in the tail of paying for it is yet to come) and…..and…Boris was a regular Thursday clapper. But there are serious questions over other aspects – the shortage of PPE for NHS staff and others at varied frontlines was disgraceful, the late institution of lockdown whilst initially opting for “herd immunity” undoubtedly cost lives, the disdain for the elderly serving them a death sentence by discharging to care homes without so much as a diagnostic test, the grossly inadequate number of tests performed and the pratfall of the “world beating test and trace” app to name but a few. In a nutshell we have a dubious twosome – no, even worse than Johnson and Cummings – of the highest number of excess deaths of a given time period compared to that expected and the largest recession of any G7 country. Calls for an independent enquiry have been accepted but mothballed until the pandemic is over. The Government can point to a ready-made lightning rod claiming that they have always simply followed the science notably the SAGE committee or Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.
But last week Matt Hancock added an additional protective shell against criticism by abolishing Public Health England citing failures in PHE’s testing and tracing as a focus of BJ’s disappointment. It is to be replaced by the National Institute for Health Protection which will bring together health protection with a primary focus of infection, biosecurity and NHS test and trace under unified leadership and with an immediate goal of tackling Covid. Bearing in mind Germany’s more favourable outcome it is to be modelled on the Robert Koch Institute but I’m left wondering whether we wouldn’t achieve more if we cloned our leader on the Angela Merkel prototype. The slight irony is that Baroness Dido Harding has been the lead on test and trace since early May (along with a Government allocation of £10 billion) and she is to be the initial executive chair of the new body. I don’t get it – the Government can’t pursue the much needed Public Enquiry into the management of Covid whilst the pandemic remains active but they can make significant changes to the healthcare strategy. Actually I think I do get it – MH and BJ recognise that errors have been made including more U-bends than a plumbing superstore and they are trying to detract from Government responsibility as much as they can. The last significant pandemic in the UK was swine flu in the summer of 2009 and of course we should learn lessons from Covid as there’ll surely be another in the years ahead. But the new Institute drops all the PHE responsibilities for the quotidian conditions – reducing smoking, sexual health, drug and alcohol misuse and obesity which a mere six weeks ago BJ told us was a priority issue. In a parliamentary Q&A session on Tuesday Alex Norris, Shadow Health and Social Care Minister, asked Hancock about these more generic health issues. His answer was that it would all be embedded fully across the health system including the NHS and they will ensure the best and right organisational structure to deliver this. That all seems very nebulous to me and with the demands on the NHS my suspicion is that without clear national leadership it just won’t happen. Jo Churchill, Tory Health and Social Care Minister, went on to call our current obesity strategy “world beating” which I find risible and it begs two questions – who says? and so why change it? I acknowledge that managing pandemics is important but prevention is better than cure in healthcare and I suspect more lives could be saved in the long run with better management of the common conditions. It feels to me that BJ and MH are attempting to cover their own backs by passing the buck at the expense of the Nation’s health and if they agree with my interpretation then I would hope that the large national bodies – BMA, RCN and Colleges for example would take the politicians to task.
The imminent winter could be both challenging and interesting in equal measure. If we’re back to normal by Christmas then BJ isn’t quite the turkey he currently seems.