Rolling it out, ramping it up
‘The right measures at the right time’ has been a mantra of ministers and sanctioned experts: sensible, uncontroversial. But the government has undermined its own timelines and its own priorities. It has talked up increases in testing – ‘rolling it out’, ‘ramping it up’ – but at the weekend a significant gap appeared between ministerial claim and reality. Michael Gove said in his Sunday morning interviews that the target of 10,000 tests per day was being met; but on Saturday, it turned out, only 8278 tests were carried out on 4908 patients.
The communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said the government ‘cannot and should not ask people to be on the frontline without the right protective equipment’, and ‘confirmed’ that 170 million masks were ‘being delivered’. We are blitzed with announcements about the millions of pieces of personal protective equipment (many of which are single-use) on their way, or the 3.5 million antibody tests the government has bought, which have not yet been manufactured but will ‘soon’ be available via Boots and Amazon. Different kinds of future, some more wishful than anything else.
Meanwhile, in the present, NHS and social care workers are still not getting tested en masse or receiving the PPE they need to stay safe. In 2016, the government carried out an exercise to test how well prepared the NHS was for a future pandemic. Not very, they found, as we’re seeing now, but nothing was done about it.
The weekend was full of warnings. ‘It’s important for me to level with you,’ Boris Johnson said. ‘We know things will get worse before they get better.’ The deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, warned that ‘normality’ could be six months away or more:
Two or three months to see whether we’ve really squashed it, with about three to six months ideally, and lots of uncertainty in that, but then to see at which point we can actually get back to normal. It is plausible that it could go further than that.
Room for manoeuvre – ‘really … ideally … lots of uncertainty … plausible’ – is inevitable and necessary, given the complexity of the situation. But in the current frenetic infosphere, warnings have come to feel like predictions.
And if this is the future, what of the past? Those dying of Covid-19 now caught the virus two or three weeks ago. Outside, the detritus of the past is everywhere: posters on buses for films that aren’t showing in abandoned cinemas. Boarded up or battened down shops, the explanatory message alongside the old price list of manicures or coffees, so much precarious commerce. Ten days ago seems impossibly far away.
Images arrive from around the world of deserted city centres, empty roads, widely spaced queues, exhausted medics, ICUs, field hospitals, coffins, crying, appeals to stay inside. The differences in the way Covid-19 is experienced are only going to grow as the disease spreads from high and middle-income countries to low. At the moment, though, the similarities are eerie. Onscreen, the adverts for Easter chocolate, cars and eyelashes only add to the strangeness. It isn’t so much that particular things seem undesirable or irrelevant, it’s that the whole value of the world represented by advertising – solid, glossy, confident, touching and touchable – has collapsed, at least temporarily.
The virus has spread in a superconnected world and national governments are finding it hard to keep control of their messages, let alone shape their population’s response. Why can’t we be more like Germany? At the Downing Street press conferences there have been constant questions about the German example of extensive testing and the reasons it can’t be applied in Britain. Because we’re more like France, the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, demonstrated on Monday, using graphs. On Tuesday, Gove was thanking unions alongside Dyson and other great British manufacturers. This isn’t where the British government planned to be at the end of March 2020.
Sunak and Johnson’s lonely clapping for the NHS last Thursday, the tabloids’ official adoption of ‘NHS heroes’, and Hancock’s belated letter to ‘our brilliant colleagues in social care’, offering the gift of free parking for the duration, are the currency of an old communicative order: the announcement or the image was the message, and little else was required. But such tokens now fall far short of what is needed, or expected. Monday’s newspapers carried the story of a doctor who had died treating patients with Covid-19. The Hackney Gazette reported yesterday that a nurse in London had died. There will be more. More than sixty doctors have died in Italy.
Yesterday evening, Gove blamed the lack of testing on shortages of ‘chemical reagents’. ITV’s Robert Peston said the Chemical Industries Association had told him there were no such shortages. It’s hard not to begin to wonder if the reason they aren’t testing more is that the government doesn’t want to know – or doesn’t want us to know – how many people are infected. Managing the media still seems to be as important to them as handling the crisis.
And they are increasingly unable to keep control of the discourse. Take the transformation of the Excel Centre into the Nightingale Hospital London. The creation of the hospital, which will be able to treat up to 4000 patients, is an extraordinary feat. It should be reassuring, and in some ways it is. But it is also chilling, like the many other buildings and spaces repurposed in Italy, Spain and France, or the field hospital going up in New York’s Central Park. They are images of the crisis, even if what goes on inside them will be part of its solution.
But there are also many ‘green shoots’: the numerous, daily reports of acts of kindness, the thousands of returning NHS and social care workers, the volunteers, the factory refits, the network of Covid-19 support groups that are spreading all over the country. They, we, deserve better than a government that offers a virtual hug and crosses it fingers.