STEPHEN GLOVER: Appoint a minister for testing now, Boris

STEPHEN GLOVER: Appoint a minister for testing now, Boris – or history will not be kind

Boris Johnson has urged the people of this country to accept the arduous terms of a lockdown, and by and large, the people of this country have acquiesced.

What virtually amounts to national house arrest will lead at the very least to feelings of frustration, and at worse to mental agonies. The economy will suffer terribly. All this most of us are prepared to accept as a heavy burden that must be borne.

But it is time for Boris Johnson to act on a message from the people of this country which he claims to have taken on board yet demonstrably has not. The message is that only exhaustive testing will prevent economic and social catastrophe.

Only testing can enable healthy, self-isolating NHS staff to return swiftly to work. Only testing can establish who has the disease, and so reduce the risk of one person infecting another. Only a new form of test can show who has had the contagion, and so can return to work.

Boris Johnson knows this. So does Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. The Government’s medical and scientific advisers agree. All these people constantly reiterate the need for more testing.

STEPHEN GLOVER: Boris Johnson has urged the people of this country to accept the arduous terms of a lockdown, and by and large, the people of this country have acquiesced

And yet for weeks we have heard promises that haven’t been fulfilled, and watched minister after flailing minister unable to tell us when, or how, rates of testing will be significantly increased.

We have listened to lame excuses, the latest one from Mr Gove being that the right sort of chemical is in short supply. How can this be in what is supposed to be the world’s fifth largest economy which is home to some of its leading pharmaceutical companies?

So while the country is locked down, and we are enjoined not to visit those we love, the number of tests carried out in the UK remains about one-seventh that of Germany, whose population is only a quarter greater. Germany is testing about 70,000 people a day.

As things stand, the German government may well be able to send growing numbers of people safely back to work long before our Government is able to do so. The danger is that our recession will be deeper and longer than it needs to be, and create more human misery than it should.

Now is not the moment to apportion blame, or to waste time inquiring why, back in February when the threat of the coronavirus was plain, the authorities did not follow the example of Germany by ordering millions of testing kits. The time will come for such searching questions to be posed by an official investigation.

One day the Government will have to explain why, only two-and-a-half weeks ago, it ditched its ‘herd immunity’ policy, which apparently accepted as inevitable many elderly people’s deaths, in favour of the current suppression strategy.

STEPHEN GLOVER: This paper has suggested former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has been evangelising the need for testing for weeks

STEPHEN GLOVER: Michael Gove has analytical gifts, and a record for shaking up conventional thinking, which make him another superlative candidate

Was the failure to order enough kits partly attributable to No 10’s former belief that widespread mortality was a price that would have to be paid, if the disease was to be brought under control?

Answers must lie in the future. Now is the moment for the Government to wake up to the magnitude of the task, and give us action not words. It must grasp the issue with a seriousness of intent and concentration of purpose that have so far been lacking.

Now is the hour for Boris Johnson to understand that throughout his political career he will never face a greater challenge than this. History will judge him by his actions over the coming weeks.

What, then, must he do? The first thing is to acknowledge that, although only he can energise and inspire the various branches of government, he is not the person who should take day-to-day control of the operation.

He lacks the grasp of detail for such an undertaking. Most people do. Besides, as Prime Minister he has other duties which would prevent him from grappling with a problem that demands round-the- clock attention.

Someone must be found who enjoys the Prime Minister’s confidence, and exercises power on his behalf. Someone focused and determined, who understands how government, and the NHS, work.

This paper has suggested former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has been evangelising the need for testing for weeks. Michael Gove has analytical gifts, and a record for shaking up conventional thinking, which make him another superlative candidate.

Whoever is chosen should embrace targets – as Lord Beaverbrook, appointed by Churchill as Minister of Aircraft Production, did in May 1940. This time there are weeks – and very few of them – not months. A specific amount of testing must be achieved by a given date. No argument. Bang heads together. Just do it.

It follows that the enormous resources of industry and top universities should be brought into play in a way they haven’t yet been. This is partly because the NHS is inherently suspicious of the private sector, and therefore reluctant to tap into its expertise and capabilities.

Let’s also face the fact that, admirable though its doctors and nurses are, the NHS is a deeply conservative and imperfect institution. The bureaucratic structures of this vast behemoth do not respond nimbly to unforeseen challenges.

I’m afraid Boris doesn’t realise this. He is so fond of extolling ‘our fantastic NHS’ that he has forgotten its natural inertia and in-built inefficiencies. Either through innate goodwill or a tendency (odd in a journalist) not to dig too deeply, he defers too readily to senior medics and top managers.

Of course, the NHS can rise to the occasion if presented with a challenge. The construction in a couple of weeks of the 4,000-bed Nightingale Hospital in East London – much assisted by the Army, it should be said – has been a triumph.

That should give cause for optimism that, with the right direction from Government, and assistance from the private sector, the NHS can dramatically increase the number of tests. But a single guiding hand is needed rather than a collection of ministers running around in circles, some of whom appear not to be fully aware of what is going on.

A single guiding hand would have registered the absurdity of a British company called Novacyt exporting millions of pounds of coronavirus tests to more than 80 countries, because the UK supposedly doesn’t have enough laboratories to use them. Of course it does!

And a single guiding hand would ensure that 17.5 million antibody tests sought by the Government, which establish whether a person has had coronavirus, work properly – and arrive soon in sufficient quantities.

That hand shouldn’t be Boris’s. It is his job to make it happen. Somehow he must rise to the urgency of a situation as grave as wartime in a way neither he nor ministers have so far managed to do.

When he fulfilled his dream of becoming Prime Minister, he can’t have imagined that the biggest challenge of his political life would come in the form of a virus, or that posterity would judge him by his success in organising testing.

Boris Johnson is at last walking with destiny. If he gets testing right, so that the economy is not laid waste for a generation, it will be his everlasting memorial. If wrong, his monument will be one of eternal shame.

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