When blame’s not a game

GUEST POST: Fraser Raleigh is an Associate Director at SEC Newsgate and a former Conservative Special AdviserFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

As the Prime Minister held a sombre press conference last night to mark the grim milestone of 100,000 Covid-19 deaths in the UK, he might have thought back to when he stood at the Downing Street podium all the way back on 12 March last year – two weeks before the first lockdown – and delivered the stark warning that: “I must level with you, level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Few could have imagined at the time quite how many more families that warning would sadly become a reality for.

How the Prime Minister’s claim yesterday that ‘we did all we could’ is viewed will depend entirely on existing perceptions of the government and its performance. It will variously be interpreted as a plaintive insistence that the government has worked in good faith to tackle a once-in-a-century crisis, as an admission that the government’s best was simply not good enough, or as an attempt to counter blame by insisting that nothing more could have been done by any government.

Throughout the pandemic, blame has never been too far from the surface of the political debate. Responding to the death toll, Labour said yesterday that ‘monumental mistakes’ have been made and at Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pushed the Prime Minister on the UK’s death toll, asking repeatedly: ‘why?’.

The list of things the government has been accused of getting wrong is a familiar one: being too slow to lockdown, slow off the mark in ensuring the provision of PPE, confused on its messaging on masks, failing to protect social care, stuttering in its initial ramp up of testing, cumbersome in establishing a test, trace and isolate system, too quick to attempt to return the economy to normality over the summer, forced to U-turn over the ill-fated exam results algorithm, too slow to implement a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown in the autumn, overpromising on the easing of restrictions over Christmas, too slow to enter the current lockdown, and insisting schools return for the new term before closing them. Critics of the government, business groups, trade unions and sector bodies will all have their own to add to that list.

How and when to apportion blame has been part of the politics of the pandemic from the start, with Labour leader Keir Starmer accusing the Prime Minister of wishing away problems rather than confronting them early enough and the Prime Minister portraying Starmer as ‘Captain Hindsight’, wanting to score political points rather than pulling together, backing the government’s efforts and waiting until the pandemic is over before learning lessons from it.

That attempt to defer blame until the end of the pandemic makes both political and practical sense for the government while overstretched ministers, officials and public health workers are flat out dealing with both the effects of the current wave of the pandemic and the mass-roll out of the vaccines that will get us out of it.

But the often talked about public inquiry that will come when the dust settles and normal life returns will not produce a standalone cathartic moment that neatly assigns blame and allows the country to move on with one shared view of what it has collectively been through.

Public inquiries take time. They are laborious and forensic, as the ongoing Grenfell Tower and the Infected Blood Inquires – both opened in 2017 – and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse – launched even earlier – have all demonstrated. Often the time-consuming, legalistic and methodical nature of inquiries causes frustration and further pain to those who want answers. The future inquiry into how Covid-19 was handled will no doubt face similar challenges.

And in any case, public inquiries are very different from public opinion, which unlike political blame is far from black and white. It is subjective, reflecting existing political views, different personal experiences, and perceptions of individual leaders. But it can also recognise different narratives as being true at the same time, such as the UK being among the worst in the world for Covid-19 deaths and among the best in the world for not just distributing but discovering the vaccines that provide an escape from the last year.

How blame is formally apportioned during any inquiry, how politicians attempt to assign or avoid it, and how the public view both will be a central part of British politics for many years as the long legacy of the pandemic remains with us.

At the heart of maintaining public confidence that lessons are learned – whoever and whatever deserves blame – will be ensuring that at the centre of it all are those families – many more even than the Prime Minister warned last March – who did go on to lose loved ones before their time.

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This piece was written for the SEC Newsgate blog.

Just what is now ‘normal’?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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This piece was written for our website.