From John in Brighton: Had Enough of Experts? Not for Test and Trace

25 September

I see the sporting world as a vignette of the wider world and in many ways with lessons to teach us. One is that at the highest level mediocrity will not triumph and we should all strive for the very highest standards that we can. Which tenuously links to one association with Covid and also one of Matt Hancock’s numerous own goals when he called on the extortionately paid Premiership footballers to donate to support good causes in the crisis. Well they did Matt but we didn’t hear of any MPs, many of whom are extremely wealthy, doing the same. Ironically in the sporting world we’d have been spared his little homily as his performance in a “results business” means he’d have been sacked by April Fool’s day.

It’s no coincidence that many football managers have a track record of playing the game because it means they understand the way it all works, the skills, the psychology, man management. In a nutshell they are experts, But it’s not just in football of which I have not partaken but medicine in which I have. I recall Andrew Marr interviewing Professor Sarah Gilbert who leads the Oxford Covid vaccine research team and ending the interview “Professors do give you very clear answers”. Too many pat answers from politicians Andrew but it’s not just professors  – people who really know their subject are authoritative. The nub of medical knowledge and advice is that it is “evidence based” and I’m sure the same must apply in all other fields. Clearly that is deficient with a new disease like Covid but that should not serve as an excuse for incompetent management. I’d happily advise on childhood diseases and safety but not on road planning (even though I drive), A level exams (it’s too long since I partook) or pest control in agriculture (despite my enjoyment of nature). And if I’m on a flight I’d prefer the pilot to be an expert, in an inferno a well-trained fireman, repairing the roof an experienced tiler or defending me in court (might be best if Matt and Boris don’t read this) a knowledgeable lawyer. In fact whatever the trade or skill then good training, experience and honed judgement are prerequisites for the best outcome. I don’t understand the Tory’s’ beef over Britain having had enough of experts. Presumably when you’ve got a multi-talented polymath like Dominic Cummings as BJ’s chief adviser there’s no place for experts.

And has the flaw ever been more crudely exposed than in the Test and Trace system? Since Adam was a boy health care has tracked down infections, chased and managed epidemics and provided advice to protect individuals and communities. Since the end of the 19th century there has been a legal requirement to inform the authorities about certain infections albeit the list has evolved and currently stands at 31 (including Covid of course). Or there may be esoteric viruses which are fortunately sufficiently rare to be listed in their own right like lassa and ebola. Then, and I claim no expertise in this, there are animal diseases which also carry statutory notification rules. All that a doctor needs is clinical suspicion of a notifiable disease and they must inform the so-called “proper officer” or health protection team in writing or by phone if it’s urgent. As a backup laboratories identifying a notifiable organism are obliged to notify Public Health England. Either way PHE are currently charged with the lead in identifying possible outbreaks and epidemics as swiftly as possible with local experts taking a lead role. As a result there is a long history of experts up and down the land with well-honed  skills in disease notification and management. A Godsend, you’d think, as the basis for a Covid test and trace service. For the sake of argument take a dozen or so of these public health doctors perhaps working in their own region but coming together as a National team, relieve them of some other duties and let them focus on developing a national test and trace service. And after years of NHS “efficiency savings” (cuts to you and me) I’m sure they’d do it for a lot less than the £10 billion on offer. But Boris and Matt invite Dido Harding to lead the 15 strong NHS Test & Trace Committee which contains just one public health doctor with the appropriate expertise. “I can’t think of anyone better than Dido” said Hancock when she was appointed. I can think of plenty Matt if you’re interested but I might be deemed a bit too expert to proffer an opinion. Was that another of Matt’s own goals or does he still feel that after her astounding statement to Parliament that nobody was expecting to see a sizeable increase in demands for tests. Really? Only the best part of 66.64 million of us. Even BJ, the Tory version of Wilkins Macawber as opposed to an expert soothsayer said on the BBC just a day after Dido that he’d been saying for weeks that a second wave was inevitable in this country. Why have such a centralised arrangement if they don’t talk or does she just dismiss a lot of Boris’ hot air? And Hancock goes to nil-3 by now stressing that only those with symptoms should go for a test and maybe rationing is needed but just two months ago in July he was urging everyone with any doubt about infection to get tested. In the absence of any credentials of value I can only assume that Baroness Harding has coughed up another Tory donation because it’s hardly on merit that she’s been promoted to head the new National Institute of Health Protection which replaces PHE. To me this seems so ridiculous that if it weren’t so serious it would be laughable. Back to the football and Dominic’s pre-empted the one about the ref needing to go to Specsavers …even if he had to go 250 miles for his eye test which equates to many people’s trip for a Covid swab. So it’s back to the other old favourite and a chant for Boris and Matt “You don’t know what yer doin’  “. There’s been a string of U-turns so one more wouldn’t go amiss – that whatever the field expert advice and leadership is integral to the best advice and support to the Government.

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