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Matt Hancock delivers coronavirus briefing, 23 April 2020. Photo: Number 10 via Youtube

Matt Hancock delivers coronavirus briefing, 23 April 2020. Photo: Number 10 via Youtube

Matt Hancock's trumpeting of new testing and tracing plans follows massive political failure on this critical issue, writes Alex Snowdon

Today's government media briefing took place in the context of a number of growing scandals and controversies. The revelations in the Sunday Times a few days ago - cataloguing a series of failures, including by the prime minister himself - have cast a shadow across this week. But there are also very pressing and extremely important issues that still need to be addressed. 

PPE and care homes 

The scandal of inadequate PPE provision is not going away. Scores of health workers have died and there has been growing anxiety among NHS staff about poor equipment.

This anxiety extends to the social care sector, where thousands of people are believed to have died yet staff have inadequate PPE. Trade unions have become increasingly outspoken on PPE in the NHS and social care. All this makes joining the minute's silence on Workers' Memorial Day next Tuesday all the more important.

The failure to get anywhere near targets for testing has continued. Meanwhile, the issue of massive numbers of deaths in care homes has gone up the news agenda.

Over 18,700 have now died in hospitals. The daily figures remain high - more than 600 in the latest daily announcement.

A Financial Times analysis this week suggested an estimate of 41,000 deaths, more than double the official figures. It has become increasingly apparent in recent days that the number of deaths in care homes has been higher than generally thought. 

This illustrates not only the scale of fatalities but the fact that talking about lifting the lockdown is dangerous - and should not be the immediate priority. We know from leaks that there are major tensions at the highest levels of government over ending the lockdown.

Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove are understood to be the most hawkish about lifting restrictions as soon as possible, with Matt Hancock most strongly resistant to this. Elements of big business are aligned with Sunak and Gove in recklessly pushing for a 'return to normal'. They are putting short-term business interests ahead of people's lives, health and safety. 

Testing and tracing 

One of the big problems with any imminent lifting of social distancing restrictions is that the required mass testing programme is not in place to do this safely. Matt Hancock talked today about progress with testing and announced new testing plans. 

But it would be foolish, as Hancock himself acknowledged, to think that these plans are enough to risk removing the restrictions. The health secretary warned of a 'second wave' of infections.

The absence of mass testing has so far been the biggest failure of all by the British government, even more serious and consequential than the delay and dither over introducing lockdown measures in March. The World Health Organisation has been consistent about insisting that 'test, trace, isolate' must be central to any country's strategy for suppressing the virus.

This has been the key lesson from South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany and New Zealand, places where there has been considerable success in dealing with coronavirus. In successful countries mass testing is combined with tracing the contacts of those who have tested positive, followed by temporarily isolating those who have the virus and their contacts.

The UK has so far been sandalously poor at testing. Early testing was abandoned by mid-March, to the bafflement of many scientists and medical experts. The availability of tests, even for NHS staff, has continued to be very poor. Only 23, 560 tests in total took place yesterday.

The new plans are therefore welcome, though the delivery will have to be monitored. Previous announcements have not led to successful implementation. Together with an increase in testing there are plans for involving 18,000 people in helping with contact tracing. This is much overdue.

It is very good that testing and tracing are being substantially increased. This should have happened weeks ago. Thousands have died because of that terrible government failure.

Alex Snowdon

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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