The Buck stops here – Mrs May needs to explain

Today, it was revealed that the Government ignored specific warnings in June last year and specific requests for PPE stockpiling. When the timings are factored in, there are only two people who should be held directly responsible. These are the current health secretary,  and the then Prime Minister-  Mr Hancock and Mrs May. It is absurdly simple.

Now, I see this story in the light of a very strange question put to the Prime minister on 18th March: Theresa May stood directly behind him on the green benches and pushed Boris for what she called “a sensible exit strategy”. Mr Johnson replied that his objective was to suppress the peak of the pandemic. The current news, therefore, makes Mrs May’s questioning of the current PM about an “exit strategy” seem even more pernicious and haughty. I have come across this lady on a number of occasions and it is always the same- when backed into a corner, she turns on to the offensive. I had always wondered why she asked Boris this question. It was a tricky question and one that has quite rightly continued to be put forward by the Opposition.

It is a question that cannot be answered or certainly cannot be answered at the moment in public. It remains an important question that should still be asked, but it certainly looked disloyal when Mrs May vocalised it.

It is a convention in British politics that the current Government shoulders responsibility for criticism of previous incumbents, on the grounds that only the current government can take action to correct the damage. In this case, the damage is too great and the desultory contempt that Mrs May has consistently shown for anyone who got in her way marks her out for special treatment now.

She has badly misjudged the public mood if she thinks she can deflect attention by bickering from the backbenches and asking the sort of questions that should be left to the Opposition. This is a serious matter and she is wrong to play the Ted Heath card.

I would like to know whether Mr Hancock was prevented from acting and whether records of this will emerge in a few years. Certainly, at the time when PPE stockpiling was urged, he was already in post, having taken over from Dominic Raab on 9 July 2018. I await his explanation. It does not look good.

This is not about a failure in policy. It is about people who must take responsibility for the deaths of many hospital staff. The last Government was warned. It ignored the warnings repeatedly. This current administration has worked around the clock to fix the mess May created. But it can never be enough.

Hancock must go and Mrs May must take personal responsibility for what she did.

Here is what the BBC report on its panorama programme records today:

The expert committee that advises the government on pandemics, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), recommended the purchase of gowns last June.

Gowns are currently one of the items in shortest supply in the UK and they are now difficult to source because of the global shortage of PPE.

Doctors and nurses have complained that there are also shortages of the life-saving FFP3 respirator masks.

Panorama has discovered that millions of FFP3 respirator masks are unaccounted for.

There were 33 million on the original 2009 procurement list for the stockpile, but only 12 million have been handed out.

The government refuses to explain where the other masks have gone.

The Health department (DHSC) feared a “four to six-fold” rise in the cost of protective equipment, arguing there was “a very low likelihood of cost-benefit,” The Guardian has said.

However, it gets worse-  This is what the Guardian wrote on 27th March:

Documents show that officials working under former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told medical advisers three years ago to “reconsider” a formal recommendation that eye protection should be provided to all healthcare professionals who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients.

The expert advice was watered down after an “economic assessment” found a medical recommendation about providing visors or safety glasses to all hospital, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients would “substantially increase” the costs of stockpiling.

The documents may help explain a devastating shortage of protective gear in the NHS that is hampering efforts by medical staff to manage the Covid-19 virus pandemic….

In 2015, what is now the Department of Health and Social Care tasked one of its independent advisory committees, the new and emerging respiratory virus threat advisory group (Nervtag), to review the UK’s approach to stockpiling personal protective equipment (PPE) for use in an influenza pandemic “to help inform future stockpile and purchasing decisions”.

Nervtag had been created the previous year to advise the government on pandemic influenza and new virus threats to the UK. The advisory group made a series of “formal recommendations” to the department in March 2016, which had been compiled by a subgroup of senior NHS clinicians and scientists, and agreed by the wider committee.

Asked what items of PPE would be required in a pandemic, the government’s advisers recommended “providing eye protection for all hospital, community, ambulance and social care staff who have close contact with pandemic influenza patients.

This was the response to similar concerns about delays delivered on April 21st this year:

Prof Peter Horby, Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases and Global Health, University of Oxford, and Chair of NERVTAG said:

“The PHE/NERVTAG risk assessment judgment on 21 February has been misunderstood. The risk assessment tool was developed and used by PHE/NERVTAG for assessing the current, not future risk, of emerging viruses. It is dynamic, and the assessment on the 21st February was that the risk of COVID-19 was moderate “at this time”. The minutes of that meeting are clear that members thought this risk was likely to increase. Also, it is not intended for use as a trigger for actions during a pandemic. To the best of my knowledge it did not lead to any action/inaction on the part of Govt and the suggestion that it contributed to fatal delays is misleading.”

I suppose we must wait and see what prof Horby has to say about the latest news and if there is any way he can explain that. In the light of deaths, the lack of honesty and the total lack of humility here is staggering. We need to know why we were so unprepared for the pandemic and why recommendations were simply ignored. I am afraid the truth will emerge.

Changing our bureaucracy

Sometimes we forget that we are no longer an island. John Donne might be pleased by that. I am not.

donne

When we check the foreign press, we find stories emerging there that should make us very anxious indeed about what is going on here, because what we are told here is not, it seems, what is actually happening. We need to worry too, and perhaps more importantly about the way these mis-truths are affecting our international reputation.

We are getting into trouble. The bullying and lying that has crept into our bureaucracy  in Britain does not work in an international crisis and is going to leave us with egg on our faces.

Already, it is evident that what the Government proposes is rarely implemented in full by our bureaucrats- banks are unable to process loans, insurance companies are refusing to pay up and so on. This is going on while, at the same time, a wave of goodwill is sweeping the country. Odd how one particular group is unable to change.

This morning, evidence is appearing in Turkey that what is being peddled by the government is not quite correct. It is true we dispatched a military plane to collect goods from Turkey and it is true that the said A400M in now on the tarmac in Istanbul and has been there since monday afternoon. It is also true that there is an export ban on PPE goods leaving Turkey. Robert Jenrick (the Housing minister) said a shipment of PPE was due on Sunday. Gavin Williamson (the education minister) said that the shipment from Turkey would come, he hoped, on Monday. What was not said, however, was that the shipment was not formally ordered and paperwork submitted until Sunday. This is madness.

The RAF transport planes have been on standby at Brize Norton for days waiting for the go-ahead to pick up 84 tonnes of urgently needed medical clothing and equipment, including the 400,000 gowns made by Turkish suppliers.

With a series of deadlines set by UK ministers missed, the British government has blamed its Turkish counterpart for causing the delays.

But after one cabinet minister said the government had hoped the three planes would be able to take off on Monday afternoon, British sources admitted that the Turkish authorities had not confirmed the supplies were ready to be picked up.

It would be just about acceptable if that was as far as it went. But the potential for international offence goes further – It is shameless that we accepted a free gift of PPE from Turkey only a week ago on 12th April (with next to no news coverage of the shipment in the British media) and that now we are pouring blame on Turkey for what are, in fact, our own failings. The news yesterday was dominated by stories that suggested there was a fault “on the Turkish side”. Quite true, but it was of our own making. Indeed, the Guardian ran a story saying quite clearly that the RAF plane that is now on the tarmac in Istanbul was sent to put “pressure on Ankara”.

This is how the Guardian reported what another minister said:

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, told the BBC on Monday morning that the delays were down to “challenges at the Turkish end” but appeared to suggest the issue was about to be resolved. He said: “I don’t want to start making more and more promises, but I understand that flight will take off this afternoon and those [gowns] will be delivered.”

We have got into a habit of using tenses in a woolly way. “I have done something” often means “I will do it (eventually or maybe)”. This has become the standard of bureaucratic action. It has worked well enough for mobile phones and for banking. Indeed, when the customer complains, the whole thing can be turned round and the customer can be made to feel that it was their failing. This is, of course, what we have tried to do here. It is shameful.

It can only cause more delay and international resentment.

We have got into the habit of apportioning blame rather than taking action. Look, for instance at this paragraph from the Guardian:

Unite’s assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail… said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, may have to consider his position if he was not able to secure the necessary PPE. She said the situation could not continue, and that health professionals would be quite right to decline to put themselves in danger.

It seems to be in response to pressure on the Health secretary that the government announced the shipment from Turkey. Unite is right to be concerned about risk to its workers and right to raise the issue with the Heath secretary. But the answer is not to spin the story. The answer is to sort it out. We are locked into a spin cycle and we seem unable to get out of this.

We need to re-programme the way our country works.

And as for this PPE issue: we cannot pass the buck here- Our fault. Our failing and our bureaucrats.