Ministers must be truthful about coronavirus public health policies and decisions. Journalists must scrutinise and speak out when they are wrong and misleading the public.

First published in April 2020.

In his coronavirus daily briefing, on Thursday, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock used his ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to pacify critics and to hide, once again, his fake promises and his (and the government’s) absolute incompetence in handling the pandemic in the UK.

To try and wriggle out of the target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April – which he himself set at the beginning of the month, Hancock changed the wording of his promise. Claiming the government was perfectly on track to meet the “challenging” target, he and his two sidekicks (Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, and Professor John Newton, the director of health improvement at Public Health England) announced the official figures and talked about ‘testing capacity’, not ‘tests carried out’.


Wording changes everything

One thing is the number of tests that have been carried out so far. Another is the number of tests you have the capacity to carry out.

These two things are not the same, as the new Labour leader Keir Starmer rightly explained to a Dominic Raab deputising for Boris Johnson at PMQs, on Wednesday.

I gave the figure for the actual tests a day. The First Secretary says that there is capacity for 40,000 tests a day and I think it is really important that we fully understand what he just said, because it means that the day before yesterday 40,000 tests could have been carried out, but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out.

PMQs. / The Hansard - UK Parliament | 22 April 2020

From what Matt Hancock explained during his briefing, on Thursday, we understand that the government is now actively trying to make the British public believe that his 100,000 target always was about capacity testing.

Indeed, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps himself stated in his Friday briefing that “the 100,000 tests target will be met in terms of capacity.

However, it is NOT what Matt Hancock promised on 2 April.

During his 2 April coronavirus daily briefing, the Health Secretary actually said, “I’m now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I’m determined we’ll get there.”

The goal was 100,000 tests a day, NOT the capacity of 100,000 tests a day.

Coronavirus: Matt Hancock sets aim of 100,000 tests a day by end of April. / BBC News | 2 April 2020

Journalists must scrutinise and speak out when necessary

In his briefing Matt Hancock announced that, as of 23 April, the official government figures were:

- Testing capacity: 51,000 tests a day.
- Tests carried out: 23,560 tests on 22 April.
- Actual testing: 14,629 people tested on 22 April.
- Target testing: 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.

Breakdown of testing by 3 of the testing strategy ‘pillars’. / Department of Health and Social Care | 23 April 2020

It is essential, even – especially! – during a pandemic, for journalists to carefully scrutinise and fact-check both ministers and their government, and not to be afraid to speak out, when they try to mislead the general public and mask their own failings.

Unfortunately, some journalists still fall short on their commitment to properly inform the public, and tend to report whatever the government announces as absolute truth. Sadly, it is the direct legacy of Brexit: Journalists will not fact-check ministers. No question of criticising the government in time of crisis. No one wants to be accused of being biased against the government. Reporting only the facts, even if those facts are not actual facts... at least we will keep/get our slot to ask a random question in the daily briefings.


Matt Hancock’s ‘aspirational’ moment?

The Brexit legacy means that a minister like Matt Hancock who would, in normal (pre-Brexit) times, have got into trouble for repeatedly misleading the public, and possibly lost his job, is immune to sacking, to journalists fact-check, and to MPs scrutiny.

Of Matt Hancock, Labour MP Peter Kyle recently said that “he does not seem to be learning from his mistakes. Just as we saw with Theresa May’s government on Brexit, he overcomes one undeliverable promise by making a bigger one and it becomes a house of cards.”

Remember how Donald Trump wanted to re-open the US economy for Easter just a few week ago? “I would love to have it open by Easter.” (24 March)

Before he eventually changed his stance on 29 March: “We had an aspiration of Easter ... Easter is a very important day. Aspirationally, I said, ‘let’s see if we can do it at Easter’.”

An aspiration!

Was the 100,000 tests a day target an ‘aspiration’ too, Mr Hancock?

From #ClapForOurCarers to #BlameOurCarers?

Why is the government misleading people? Half of the current capacity testing is being carried out with less than a week to go to Matt Hancock’s end of April target. It is well short of the Health Secretary promise, and if the objective is missed the blaming game is going to start with Hancock being a clear target himself.

Peter Kyle also said that “the inevitable public inquiry will have to look at how these promises came to be made ... It was all about the macho posturing of who can make the biggest promise and say the biggest number and who can put up the most bravado for the cameras.”

As Sarah Boseley, the Guardian Health editor, explained on Thursday, after having fully supported the British public clapping for them every Thursday (and I still don’t understand why we are meant to clap once a week only when most other countries do it every day??), Hancock and the government could well deflect the blame on to health workers and key workers.

“Hancock has already said that they are not turning up at the drive-through centres in the numbers expected,” she writes. “But in fact nurses and doctors have ended up self-isolating because of the long distances they would have to drive to get tested – and there have been stories of some being turned away when they get there. But there is a fundamental problem. Key workers don’t want a long drive at the end of a gruelling shift to get tested.

The former New York Times journalist Bob Herbert once wrote:

“There are few things more dangerous than a mixture of power, arrogance and incompetence.” 🔷


Check their Voting Record:

🗳️ Matt Hancock

🗳️ Keir Starmer

🗳️ Dominic Raab

🗳️ Grant Shapps

🗳️ Peter Kyle

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Matt Hancock Digital Covid-19 Presser. | 23 Apr 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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