Damian Green is a former First Secretary of State, Chair of the One Nation Caucus, and is MP for Ashford.
Paul Goodman urged caution yesterday about the speed at which we are likely to move to a full testing and tracing service, and he was right to do so. However, appropriate clear-eyed realism about the Government’s performance is at one end of a spectrum which moves through the baseless charge that we are the second worst in the world in dealing with the crisis, to the Twitter-twattery of “You can’t believe a word they say.” I would like to provide a corrective.
At the beginning of this crisis, it was a given on the Left, and a real worry for everyone, that the NHS would not be able to cope. We all saw the terrible scenes in Northern Italy of patients not able to be admitted to emergency wards. Matt Hancock’s first test as Health Secretary was ensure it didn’t happen here. He and the NHS have succeeded, and as a result this possibility is no longer a news item.
Indeed, some people spent a few days admiring the Chinese for their unique ability to put up a hospital in a few days, saying it could never happen here, Until it did happen here – and they went quiet, Until we did not need as much extra ICU capacity as we had feared, and the Nightingale Hospitals were not busy, at which point they said this was all a waste of money. Resilience is never a waste of money,
The next crisis was testing. At the beginning of April we could test fewer than 10,000 people a day. It was regarded as the height of hubristic folly for Matt to say that we would be able to test 100,000 a day by the end of April. We were able to do that. We are now entering the season where his further claim that we will be able to test 200,000 a day by the end of May is creating raised eyebrows. Let’s come back here on June 1st and see where we have reached.
The background to this is the extraordinary ability of this country, its NHS and private companies in partnership, to create a large-scale diagnostics industry from scratch in a few weeks. Ideologues on all sides should look at this and question their prejudices. A state health system can be quick off the mark when well-directed. But without the energy and resourcefulness of the private sector the state will not be able to meet its goals. God bless the mixed economy.
One final look backwards is that we went through a period when we told that ventilators were in such short supply that this would be the pinch point that crashed the system. For a week, the social media experts were divided between the rival merits of Formula One or vacuum cleaner expertise in building a medical device, though united in the certainty that Britain would lose out because we did not have enough ventilators. As it happened, everyone who needed a bed with a ventilator has had one.
In the present, we now hear that 21,000 contact tracers and call handlers have been employed, when late last week we were told the Government would not meet a target of 18,000. At the same time anyone with symptoms is now eligible to be tested.
All of these are successes we can add to the list of business support measures which have been widely praised. The grants and loans, and above all the furlough scheme, with its newly-added flexibility, have been invented on the hoof, and have faced the inevitable bumpy moments, but at the moment they are preserving thousands of firms and millions of jobs. They give us the chance of an economic recovery over the next couple of years which will be essential not just for the livelihood the country, but also for the public services that have been in the forefront of this crisis.
I am not being starry-eyed. I know from my own constituency experience that the provision of PPE has been less than perfect, especially to care home workers. I know that access to testing is sometimes difficult, when the website does not make a nearby test available. It is also absolutely true that there are many hurdles ahead, and there will be some bad and worrying days.
But an objective observer would surely recognise that the NHS has played a full role in getting us through this crisis, and has happily moved well beyond its role as a political football. It really is a valuable national institution, and those leading it should receive full credit.