Matt Hancock Health Secretary Matt Hancock Digital holds the Covid-19 Press Conference with Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan Van Tam and Chief Nurse, Ruth May in 10 Downing Street. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

As the death toll rises, the government comes under massive pressure to deliver PPE, reports Alex Snowdon 

Today’s Downing Street media briefing had, in some ways, an air of unreality about it. It had just been announced that 980 people across the UK have died in the latest 24-hour period, a record daily high. It is the highest figure of any country in the world. 

This grim reality was skirted over. You wouldn’t think, from the overall tone and balance of the media conference, that we are currently seeing such an appalling level of fatalities. There was no acknowledgement of reports in the last couple of days indicating that the real figure could be significantly higher, with worrying levels of deaths in care homes – not included in official daily figures – being reported.

Of course there was also no acknowledgement that deaths being reported now are linked to what the government was, or was not doing, a few weeks ago. It was four weeks ago yesterday – 12 March – when Boris Johnson informed us that ‘herd immunity’ was the strategy. That was formally changed a few days later, but the school closures came too late, the lockdown came too late, and the mass testing and contact tracing are still not happening. 

It also felt strange to hear the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announcing plans for getting personal protective equipment (PPE) to health workers on the front line. This is weeks into the crisis. Why now? 

Hancock attempted to cover for the existing failures by stressing how much PPE has already been distributed. Yet there have been countless reports from health workers, complaining about not getting the required PPE. It has become a national scandal. 

This has put NHS staff at risk. It is one reason why there are currently extremely high levels of illness, absence and self-isolation among them. This affects the capacity of the NHS to treat patients and also puts the families of health workers, and the wider community, at risk. 

Hancock’s new announcements for producing and distributing PPE will be greeted by widespread scepticism. This will need monitoring to see if promised equipment is actually delivered. A journalist in today’s briefing pointed out that the government is still a massive distance from reaching the target of 100,000 tests a day. The current figure is 19,000 a day, which is woefully inadequate. 

The failures on testing, contact tracing, ventilators and PPE are, or certainly should be, dominating political debate around the coronavirus crisis. Hancock had to address PPE today under massive pressure. More generally, though, there is an effort to keep these urgent issues in the background – and keep the messages around social distancing to the fore. 

Social distancing is indeed crucial. But the lockdown must be combined with mass testing and tracing, together with ensuring that NHS staff have PPE, ventilators and everything else they need. This is the lesson to be learnt from countries like South Korea, Germany and New Zealand that have been far more successful in combating the spread of Covid-19. 

There was, as usual, moralistic finger-wagging about people not adhering to social distancing. This was complemented in today’s briefing by Hancock implying that workers using PPE are not always using it as prudently as they should be. There was a clear attempt to at last partly shift blame for poor distribution of PPE on to health workers. It takes some nerve. 

Today’s media briefing underlined the government’s failures: ‘too little, too late’ on testing, tracing, ventilators and PPE. We must hold it to account and demand better. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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