No sacred cows

Boris Johnson’s human shield

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

10 October 2020

9:00 AM

At a Conservative party conference fringe event last Sunday, Lord Bethell, a health minister, was asked where he thought Britain ranked in the world in terms of its response to the pandemic. ‘I think there have been some outstanding pieces of delivery that have not been fully appreciated,’ he said. ‘And I think it will be like the Olympics, that when it’s all over and we look back and reflect, we will actually be extremely proud of ourselves.’

A few hours later, Public Health England confessed that it had failed to include 15,841 people who’d tested positive for Covid-19 between 25 September and 2 October in the daily updates and had added them to Sunday’s total. Presumably, Lord Bethell wouldn’t describe that as an outstanding piece of delivery. Nor, I imagine, would he include the government’s failure to provide NHS staff and care home workers with sufficient PPE, the decision to suspend community testing and then ramp it up again, the U-turn on face masks, the abandonment of the NHS’s original Track and Trace app and one built using Apple-Google technology, the fact that the latter didn’t work properly when it was first rolled out and the failure of PHE to anticipate the extent of public demand for testing when schools and universities reopened. True, there were several cock-ups in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, but it’s hard to imagine what the Covid equivalent of GB’s medal haul will be. Which aspect of the government’s response to the crisis does Lord Bethell think we’ll look back on with pride?

No doubt the junior minister interpreted the question as a veiled attack on his boss and was just being loyal. Matt Hancock has come under so much fire since the beginning of March there’s been speculation that Boris Johnson is only keeping him in the cabinet as a human shield. Whenever the government makes another unforced error, Hancock is pushed out in front of the media and forced to stand there and take it as brickbats are hurled at him. It’s hard to imagine why the Health Secretary is being kept on life support if it’s not to soak up as much blame as possible so he can be sacrificed when things get so bad the public demands blood. Some think that might not be until the official inquiry pronounces its verdict, which is bound to be withering. But surely he can’t last that long?

I thought he might be in difficulty earlier this week when Amnesty International published its investigation into why around 40 per cent of all Covid deaths in England have occurred in care homes. It described the government’s treatment of care home residents as ‘inhuman and degrading’ and said their fundamental human rights had been violated. At the beginning of the viral outbreak, Hancock claimed a ‘protective ring’ had been thrown around the care sector, but that wasn’t quite accurate. We now know that the government was so worried about the NHS being overwhelmed, hospitals were effectively ordered to discharge elderly patients back into care homes without first checking whether they had Covid-19. Many of them did and they went on to infect other residents, but few were able to get proper medical care because hospitals wouldn’t admit them and GPs wouldn’t visit. The ‘protective ring’ was more like a prison wall. It didn’t stop infected people getting in; it stopped them getting out.

Of the 28,186 excess deaths recorded in English care homes from 2 March to 12 June, 18,562 were attributed to Covid-19, while the remaining 9,624 weren’t. Amnesty speculates that some of these will have been due to undiagnosed Covid, but others will have been an indirect result of government policy. When the country was locked down, far fewer people than normal were treated for heart attacks, cancer, strokes and diabetes, and dementia deaths increased by 50 per cent. Many care home residents will have died as a result of enforced isolation, their only social contact being with tired and overworked staff wearing masks, face shields and plastic overalls.

I’m not saying Matt Hancock is to blame for any of these deaths, but if the buck doesn’t stop with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who does it stop with? Incredibly, though, the media hasn’t paid much attention to the Amnesty report so Hancock hasn’t been damaged by it. But the goodwill of the public is gradually being exhausted and it won’t be long before it’s time for Boris to initiate Operation Scapegoat.

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