We’re all well used to reading political news that we know will skew either to the right or the left. The government trip over their feet and certain papers drag them to the iron maiden before slamming the door on their toes. The government achieves a small victory and other papers fete them as if they’ve just conquered the Moon. I despise that kind of front-loaded journalism, especially on a day like today when the government have achieved something meaningful, failed to achieve something arbitrary, and have apparently given the figures the old Joe-Biden-let-me-ease-that-knot-in-your-shoulders treatment.
“He’s Only Gone and Done It” screamed The Daily Mail this morning, celebrating Kim Jung-Hancock as he “smashes viral testing goal”. “Supine” doesn’t begin to cover it. The Mail’s offices are beginning to resemble the other Kim’s pleasure palace, with enough Swiss cheese and concubines to satisfy his widest heart scare.
Whatever that is, it certainly isn’t journalism, because questions do need to be asked about the way Hancock has “gone and done it”. The Health Secretary was aiming for 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April but The Guardian now reports that “a third of the 122,347 tests included in the final 24-hour period before the deadline were counted before they had been carried out. Around 39,000 had been sent out to households and satellite testing locations, with no guarantee of the timescale for their completion, but were still included in the count.” That means the government’s boast of 122,347 tests probably falls well short of the target of 100,000.
But here’s the thing…
The number matters about as much as a hiccup in a hurricane.
People might want the government eviscerated or celebrated according to how they skew, but I can’t get myself excited by this meaningless bullshit. I only care about how we get through this awful mess with the least number of people dead, ruined, or traumatised. Tell me about the plans for contact tracing rather than contract acing. Headline figures matter more than the paper they’re printed on; the state of our NHS considerably more than the new badges that staff have been given to wear. I care more about funding than I do about clapping. And if officials still think that political spin matters at this stage, somebody needs to hand the government a pin that reads “Just do your fucking job!”
And as far as doing his job, Hancock set an entirely sensible goal for April. That much should be acknowledged. Unfortunately, it was also immensely dumb of him to present that figure to the press in the form of a noose they could tie around his neck. This ensured that the battle against the virus almost became secondary to his political survival. 100,000 was a nice round figure but it was also arbitrary. Why not 50,000 or 500,000? Why not a million? 100,000 provided a useful target, high enough to stretch the system to achieve its maximum capacity within that timeframe. There was nothing magical about 100,000 rather than, say, 99,000. It was politically expedient that they hit it, but this was really about ensuring that the government machine screamed as every piston was pushed to its melting point.
If, as it seems, they did hit around 70,000 tests a day, there shouldn’t be (nor would there have been) calls for the Health Secretary’s resignation. Is it ideal? No. But even armchair critics surely recognise that these matters are complicated. The government are playing catchup from their earlier mistakes, which, of course, will be investigated at a suitable time and the British public will get to render their judgement in the form of an election.
What isn’t acceptable, however, is if – as it seems – the government chose to do something as slippery as changing the qualifying criteria for a completed test. Because that’s where these things do begin to matter. These cheats are habit-forming. The government are starting to look as dodgy as a UV enema…
Remember those stories about doctors being advised that they needn’t list COVID-19 on death certificates for those that have passed away outside of a hospital?
Remember Panorama suggesting that the government had been counting a pair of gloves as two separate items of PPE?
Remember how Panorama also revealed that the government changed the classification of COVID-19 so there wouldn’t be the same need to stockpile PPE?
This is what I find so disquieting about this story. How much the government missed their quite arbitrary April target matters less than their willingness to lick a thumb and smudge the spreadsheet. Messaging is vital to how the government operates in an emergency, but messaging is different to spin. People routinely say that “this is not the time for politics” and most of the time they’re wrong. This, however, really is not the time for politics. We need to have faith in our government, the advice they take, and the advice they give. We need to be sure that their plans for combatting this terrible virus are being matched by meaningful action. What we do not need is a government so obsessed with covering its hugely exposed arse that it forgets to zip up its trousers.
We need a government that stops playing games. We need a government that tells the truth and does its job.