EU Referendum

Coronavirus: top-down lies


Under pressure to explain the surge of infection in care homes at yesterday's Downing Street press conference – one of the main reasons the death toll is so high – health secretary Matt Hancock did what he must have thought was the only way out of his personal mess. He lied.

"Right from the start", he claimed, "we've tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes. We set out our first advice in February... we've made sure care homes have the resources they need". (Transcription courtesy of Sky News).

The evidence to support this is unequivocal, furnished by the Telegraph on 24 April, in an article which explored the "reckless"' order for NHS hospitals to discharge patients suffering from Covid-19 to care homes.

Unusually, the paper published links to the evidence, in what it called two "damning policy documents" published respectively on 19 March and 2 April, in which officials told NHS hospitals to transfer any patients who no longer required hospital level treatment, and set out a blueprint for care homes to accept patients with Covid-19 or who had not even been tested.

The documents, as I wrote in this blog were indeed damning. The first of the two, dated 19 March 2020 effectively required the hospital service to turf out 15,000 patients to make room for the expected "surge" of Covid-19 patients, anticipating that about half of these would need support from health and/or social care.

The second document, dated 2 April 2020, made unrealistic and, bluntly, scurrilous assertions that patients with Covid-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, could be safely accepted in care homes, on the basis of guidance set out in the document.

And, as I wrote at the time, to give the Telegraph its due, in an editorial, it asked: "How does the Government explain its advice to care homes?" Is it possible, it pondered, "that in the rush to reduce pressure on the NHS and increase capacity, decisions were taken that passed the risk on to care homes instead?"

That was indeed the case. Not by any imagining, and not in any conceivable way could it be said that the Department of Health or the NHS tried to throw a "protective ring" around care homes.

Quite to the contrary, the NHS hospitals sought to protect themselves from being "overwhelmed", by the simple expedient of dumping thousands of vulnerable patients onto the care sector, spreading the infection to thousands of others who were least able to defend themselves from it.

By any measure, therefore, Hancock told an egregious, unconscionable and deliberate lie yesterday, when he addressed the press conference – a lie of staggering proportions.

And yet, what did our brilliant legacy media do? Well, the Telegraph, which originally published the links to the "damning" official documents – behaving for a short while like an actual newspaper, has chosen not to notice the lie.

With its front page lead devoted to the squabble about whether schools should be re-opened, the coverage of the press conference majored on care homes and hospitals driving the rise in Britain's coronavirus infection rate. Hancock's "protective ring" lie wasn't mentioned.

Largely today, the school issue is dominating the front pages, and the only paper to offer even a tentative query is the Financial Times, with the headline: "Hancock claim of ‘protective ring’ round care homes questioned" – offering a tepid intervention from Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, which represents care homes, saying he wanted to "see the evidence of what exactly the protective ring consists".

And that, it would seem, is the best the British media collective can do. Even though it wets its collective knickers over Keir Starmer's "forensic" questioning of Johnson over care homes, when the health secretary is caught out in an obvious and provable lie, the media are silent.

Even then, this is only one of the ways in which this government has completely botched the response to this epidemic. When Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's friendly Covid cardiologist recently complained that, "Basically, every mistake that could have been made, was made", he wasn't exaggerating.

The latest of its cock-ups its inability (Times paywall) to recruit enough people for its contact tracing scheme, with Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, admitting that only 1,500 or 8.5 percent – of the 18,000 target had been hired.

Adverts for the 15,000 call centre jobs are offering an hourly rate of £9.42 per hour, only slightly higher than the national minimum wage, and recruiters are looking for "those with a customer service, care or retail background".

The job, apparently, is "to call people who are infected with Covid-19", and then telephone all of the people with whom they have recently been in close contact. The job listing for a "Contact Tracer Customer Service Advisor", also requires post-holders to "to update the in-house system and be able to record accurate data" as well as "show empathy and compassion at all times".

Of the 3,000 "Clinical Contact Caseworkers", their salary range is £16.97 to £27.15 per hour, for which they become NHS employees, with jobs advertised for London, Liverpool, Hull, Birmingham, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Redditch, amongst other locations.

But there lies the crucial evidence that the government has no intention whatsoever of handing the contact tracing operation to local authorities. This is to be another top-down operation, in an approach that has blighted the response from the very beginning.

This top-down attitude, according to the Municipal Journal has meant local areas being "left in the dark", as central government has excluded local partners from key intelligence and failed to share enough information.

The local bodies set up to deal with crises are the Local Resilience Forums (LRFs), which are largely being ignored. Central government is mainly engaged in "broadcasting", with communication operating "only one way". However, a former senior civil servant said: "The findings of this review are not surprising… We’re already quite a centralised country but this administration in particular likes centralising".

This one-way government is nothing new, of course, and its doctrinaire approach has Michel Barnier complaining of the latest round of EU trade talks that it has been "a round of divergence, with no progress".

Not content with making a complete mess of the Covid-19 response, the government seems determined to repeat the process with our EU negotiations, potentially adding even greater economic stress to an already fraught situation.

At least we need not take the lack of government responsiveness personally. It is not just us – Johnson is ignoring everyone, apart from his tight little circle of advisors. And when caught out, they do what their boss does – they lie, and the media says nothing.

One can only wonder how much longer a docile British public will put up with this, before we finally see a rebellion.