Saturday 30 April 2022

The "Big Calls" right? Score 1 out of 10 (or 1+ if we are generous).

"Partygate" has gone off the boil in the last few days, replaced in the media by indignation (and salacious fascination) at the misbehavours of several MPs.  However, until this diversion (another "dead cat?") came to their rescue assorted ministers were trundling round the studios  cravenly explaining  that, compared with the "Big Calls" which their super-leader Johnson had "got right," a few parties were  a relatively trivial affair that shouldn't worry us too much.

Here's an examination of the"big calls."

 1.  PPE equipment.  It has been a constant theme by government apologists throughout the pandemic that this is an unprecedented situation which couldn't possibly have been predicted.  In fact it was most definitely both precedented and predicted.  In her vivid account of her career in post-disaster management, When the Dust Settles published earlier this year, Lucy Easthope claims that a pandemic has been top of the list of probable disasters in the UK for years.  More particularly Exercise Cygnus of 2016 examined how to deal with a pandemic, and made detailed recommendation to "be prepared."  Most were ignored, in particular the requirement to keep adequate stocks of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) . These were allowed to run down and NHS staff were consequently required to put their own health and even lives in danger without adequate protection.

2.  PPE Procurement.   Last minute efforts to secure PPE ignored routine procedures and were directed to private companies which  often had no experience of manufacturing or providing such equipment.  Personal connections with Tory MPs and party members secured access to a VIP line and billions of £s of public money were wasted. (A billion is an awful lot)*

3.   Insouciant beginning.  The government failed for too long to take the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. Prime Minister  Johnson led the field in this.  He attended a crowded rugby match with his then girlfriend and  openly boasted of continuing to shake hands with hospital staff when such physical contact was discouraged. The "Glorious Goodwood " race meeting was allowed to go ahead. This attempt to shrug off the pandemic with casual lack of concern set totally the wrong tone for dealing with it.

4.  Discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes. With typical boastfulness the govenmt claimed that care homes were "ring fenced" against infection.  This has turned out to be completely untrue and the High Court has now decreed the procedure that was followed to have been "unlawful."  The Health Minster at the time, Matt Hancock, has already been forced to resign  for cuddling one of his assistants when the rest of us were officially limited to elbow bumps for physical intimacy.  Maybe he'll now be prosecuted.

 5.  The Test and Trace System.  This was announced, again boastfully, as being "World Beating" and was to involve an (as yet not invented) App. It was farmed out to the private sector, was an abject failure and cost an astonishing £37bn.  Hired operatives spent days sitting by their computers doing nothing.  The existing expertise of the Local Government Public Health Authorities and the NHS's Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinics (surely the most experienced people in the country at tracing contacts in delicate situations) were ignored.

 I find the cost difficult to credit. ( Again, a billion is an awful lot). For comparison, a few days ago, say after five weeks of war, the total cost of repairing the damage to  Ukraine's buildings and infrastructure was estimated as being in the region of £47bn. .  What on earth did we spend £37bn on?

6.The Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).   This was a scheme to enable established businesses forced to close or reduce their activities during the pandemic to enable them to "bounce back" once the emergency was over.  A total of £47bn was distributed, much of it  apparently without adequate checks.  Some applicants were not even trading before the pandemic started, some never did, and there were multiple  applications  from the same addresses.  A total of £4.96bn has now been written off as "fraud" and a further £5.7bn lost as the loans were given to firms that collapsed anyway.  (To repeat, again, a billion is an awful lot.)

 7.  The Furlough Scheme.  This was not a complete failure, but far from the brilliant initiative it is claimed to have been.  The German and French schemes were arguably more generous, more flexible and lasted longer.  A further £5.7bn was lost through fraud in the UK scheme. (I have seen not figures for the German and French schemes, but I'm sure there would have been fraud there too.)

8.  Delays.  There were countless  delays in imposting lockdowns: at the beginning, for a "half term fire-break," before Christmas with only two days notice, to name but some.  The government can also be accused of lifting restrictions prematurely and recklessly.

9.  Control of our borders.Our "success" in terms of deaths per million population, compared with similar larger and more developed European countries is measured as follows.(as at 24th April 2022)

 Italy:          2 748

UK:             2 558

France:       2 362

Spain:         2 203 

Germany:   1 617 

Nothing much to shout about there.  In fact, given that we are an island, and with the much-lauded "control of our borders" which the Brexit victory allegedly achieved, we should expect a much lower rate of fatalities than our neighbours with land borders, some of them very lengthy.

10. The Vaccine Distribution. This is the great and uncontested feather in the government's cap.  We were, indeed, the first country to start distributing a viable vaccine. (I dislike the term "roll-out" - meant to sound modern and "sexy" but seems to me more properly to be something you do with barrels, and then "have a barrel of fun.") Other countries have now caught up and some have now achieved greater coverage.  it's also worth noting that we weren't the first to create and manufacture a viable vaccine: that was Germany (and by two descendents of  the much-scorned Turkish guest-workers to boot).  

 It's also questionable how much the vaccine success was due to the government and how much to brilliant scientists at Oxford University and the Anglo Swedish ( think - their websites seem reluctant to say where they are based - or maybe it's my poor research skills) AstraZeneca  Company.  It is also notable that the distribution was organised, not by the private sector,  as with the Test and Trace Scheme,  but by the NHS.

The frequently repeated government claim that we were  able to be quick off the mark with the vaccine becasue of Brexit is completely false.  There is nothing in EU rules or regulations which would have prevented our  doing exactly what we did if we had remained in the EU.

So, Prime Minister Johnson's total mark for the "big calls" is one out of ten, or one and a half if we give him the benefit of some doubt on the operation of the furlough scheme.

* PS Just to drive the point home, it takes over 31.5 YEARS for a billion seconds to pass.  A million seconds pass in just over eleven and a half days.  So the cost of £333.000 worth of weaponry which Mr Johnson is offering the Ukrainians today (3rd May, in a Churchill tribute act presumably timed to influence Thursday's  local elections,) is financial peanuts compared with the wastage and losses detailed above.


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