Testing – Farce and Fantasy

With an additional 2 million people in the North East facing new lockdown restrictions as of midnight today, and a further 1 million people in Leeds are rumoured to face a coming lockdown, we need some light relief. John Crace provides this several times a week in The Guardian, and today’s article on testing, although supposed to be “tongue in cheek”, exposes the true incompetence of the Government and its appointed representatives. The article appears in full below :

Viva Las Vagueness: Door Matt and Dido star in a cabaret of Covid cluelessness

In Las Vegas, they would call it a residency. So shabby has the government’s performance and messaging been over the coronavirus that Matt Hancock has found himself in the House of Commons almost on a daily basis, either to answer an urgent question or to make a ministerial statement on the latest Covid shambles.

And sure enough, the health secretary was back in the chamber on Thursday to outline the latest regional lockdowns that account for about one-seventh of the country – it can’t be long before there’s just a couple of villages in Cornwall open for business that are preventing another national lockdown being declared – and to announce a triage service for A&E departments. Press 1 if you think you are going to die in the next hour. 2 if you think you have a 50/50 chance of making it to the end of the day. 3 if you have broken a leg, and stop moaning. 4 to sod off and take some ibuprofen.

Hancock didn’t think to mention the collapse of coronavirus testing in many parts of the country. Nor did he say that the R number is now thought to be an alarming 1.7 in London and other areas. There again, if he had, he would have used up some of his best material for next week’s shows.

Not that Matt seems to be getting much enjoyment from all the attention, as he has become increasingly ratty. Like most Door Matts, Hancock’s natural instinct is to punch down. So rather than accepting his share of the blame for the things the government has got wrong, he has now taken to attacking opposition MPs – and even some on his own benches – for not being supportive enough. Like Boris, he can no longer accept a word of criticism. His reply to Labour’s Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, who had merely pointed out some blindingly obvious truths, was a model of sneering gracelessness. At times like this, I think Hancock may be closer to losing his grip than even he realises.

Still, at least we will always have Typhoid Dido Harding, the interim chief executive of the National Institute for Health Protection, who was making a rare appearance before the science and technology committee. Right from the start she looked to be on edge. And once she opened her mouth, it immediately became clear why. Typhoid Dido really didn’t have much of a clue about anything.

Dido Harding
 Dido Harding seemed astonished to learn that there was a pandemic going on. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

She began by informing the committee that England only had the capacity for 242,000 tests a day, but she was totally unable to give an exact figure on the levels of demand. You could never be too sure, because about 27% were demanding tests when they had no symptoms. Typhoid Dido appeared to have no symptoms of meaningful neural activity. Trying to be helpful, her best guess was that demand outstripped capacity by three or four times. She thought that was a result.

Typhoid then went on to say that all would be well because testing capacity would double to 500,000 in a matter of six weeks. The committee chair, Greg Clark, raised an eyebrow. Given that the government had missed all its other testing targets, why should we believe this one? And as 500,000 was the average daily figure of people experiencing Covid-like symptoms in a normal year, wasn’t the level of tests hopelessly short of coping with a pandemic? Typhoid seemed astonished to learn that there was a pandemic going on and even more surprised to learn that children went back to school in September.

Things went from bad to worse as it emerged that tests were being rationed because laboratories couldn’t keep up with demand and that far from meeting the prime minister’s target of a 100% results turnaround within 24 hours, the government was only achieving a figure of about 33%. “The system is failing,” said Clark. Typhoid begged to differ. She reckoned 33% was a trailblazing success.

Eventually, Labour’s Graham Stringer intervened and asked the question on everyone’s mind: what on earth made her think she was the right person to head the new National Institute for Health Protection? Typhoid thought for a bit. It could have been that she had been chief executive of TalkTalk when it suffered a massive data breach resulting in her ignorance being described as a lesson to us all. It could have been that she had been on the board of the Jockey Club that gave the go-ahead to the Cheltenham festival. It could have been that she had been in charge of NHS test and trace, a service in which many employees made just two calls a month.

Or it could just have been that she was a Tory peer, married to a Tory MP, who was prepared to step up to the plate when her country called. An expert in logistics and key performance indicators who “could act faster over a broader landscape”. It now became clear she saw that her main asset was to be able to talk bullshit – though not particularly convincingly.

She wasn’t sure whether she would still be in the job if interviews ever started for it to be made permanent, but she wasn’t that bothered. Like Chris Grayling, who has just landed a £100k-a-year sideline in advising ports, despite having awarded a ferry contract to a company with no ferries, Typhoid Dido has the priceless asset of being able to fail upwards.

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