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Not So Splendid Isolation
After a few days of Brexit muscling in on the news agenda (with horrible flashbacks of the hung parliament hell of a year ago), coronavirus returned to dominate Westminster today. From Matt Hancock’s new local lockdown and extra NHS cash to Dido Harding’s Test and Trace problems, Covid was everywhere, so to speak.
And what struck me most was that while politicians and officials daren’t explicitly blame the Great British Public for the alarming new spread of the virus, it’s clear that’s where they think the real responsibility lies.
Hancock himself again hinted that one reason for the huge demand in tests was that the damned things were free. Explaining the looming rationing of tests (except of course he calls it “prioritising”), he said: “This is the core point: when something is provided for free and demand is therefore high, we have to prioritise where we put our national resources.”
He was referring to Leicester, which has a large BAME population. Yet only a few weeks ago, when the health secretary was keen on maximising test applications (even those in any “doubt” about symptoms), insiders told us that one deterrent for some older minority ethnic voters was a fear that tests would carry a charge (as in their ‘home’ countries).
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s latest gaffe, suggesting people were “carping” when they say it’s difficult to get tests, perhaps spoke to this wider perception that the pesky public had got it all wrong.
Before the science and technology committee, Harding and health minister Lord Bethell also came pretty close to suggesting that the real problem, both with surging demand and with the rise in the virus, was down to Joe Public rather than anything the government had done (like, say, encouraging people into pubs, schools, offices).
Giving us the first hard stats for a week, Harding revealed that the online and phone applications for tests was “three to four times the number of tests we currently have available”, which she said was now 242,000 tests a day.
But when chairman Greg Clark said that the September surge was “entirely predictable” and more capacity should have been built more quickly, she gave a fascinating reply. “I don’t think anybody was expecting to see the really sizeable increase in demand that we’ve seen over the course of the last few weeks,” she said.
And then there was this: “In none of the modelling was that expected. We built our capacity plans based on Sage modelling.” It wasn’t as if she was directly trying to blame the scientists but setting out just what drove her actions.
Still, Clark’s point seemed valid: wouldn’t any normal reading of human behaviour include teachers, parents and kids requesting more tests when schools went back? She said nobody expected a spike in demand, but plenty did.
But Harding had a wider point about testing, in that her surveys had found 27% of those arriving at test centres actually didn’t have symptoms. These were people who had been in contact with someone who had tested positive, but wanted to check themselves to avoid having to self-isolate for 14 days.
And she revealed that lots of people were indeed breaking quarantine. Some reasons were valid (“caring responsibilities”), some less so (“they feel they need to pop out to grab something from a shop or they just want some fresh air”). Harding said that “a meaningful percentage” of people find it hard to stick to the full 14 days.
Lord Bethell was more robust still, saying “there is a temptation to believe that having a test somehow is a cure, or if not a cure is a way out of your commitment to isolate”. Lockdown fatigue had kicked in too. He added that while “we would never have achieved what we’ve done if the public hadn’t been on our side...people do get tired”.
Now I’ve got to declare an interest here. I had to quarantine for 14 days after getting caught out by the short notice imposition of quarantine on returnees from France this summer. I stuck rigidly to the rules, not going out beyond the front door. I can tell you it was no picnic, and at times felt like house arrest. But I am lucky in having online grocery delivery, a nice garden and most important of all the ability to work from home.
If you have none of those things, quarantine would be much, much more difficult. Imagine being a builder living in a high rise flat with no internet. Sage research found that 75% of people in self-isolation go shopping, and young men in particular are more likely to go outdoors.
One obvious route to improving the quarantine rate would be a quick, proper payment to ensure people aren’t left out of pocket for not working. But today, on Radio 4’s World At One, Pendle Council’s David Whipp revealed that the government’s pilot scheme of £13 a day had been taken up by...four people. Yes, four, in an area with serious coronavirus levels. Unless the payment is an amount workers can live on, it seems the pilot will die on its feet.
The overall message from today’s sci and tech session was that the real issue is the public’s failure to self-isolate. Maybe the government’s programme should have been named ‘NHS Test, Trace And Isolate’ from the start, just to get over that message that the first two are useless unless the third leg is adhered to.
Of course, if the testing is expanded rapidly, quarantine may be shortened and more palatable. If serious cash is pumped into cutting the cost of self-isolation, if networks can be set up for food deliveries, if the app arrives in time. Until then, we may well see more measures like curfews and rules on not mixing households. Maybe, just maybe, No.10 will reverse its drive to get people back into the office too.
But there’s real dilemma for the government: just as they are hinting the public ought to take more responsibility in not applying for needless tests and in complying better with quarantine, the public is losing confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A new YouGov poll today found its net approval score dropped to -33, from -18 last week. Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dido Harding have a big job to do to turn that round.
Quote Of The Day
“Instead of this endless carping, saying it is difficult to get them, we should actually celebrate the phenomenal success of the British nation in getting up to a quarter of a million tests.”
– Jacob Rees-Mogg
Thursday Cheat Sheet
NHS Test and Trace reported a dramatic fall in tests returned within 24 hours, plunging from 66% to 33% for in-person tests in just a week.
The UK recorded 21 more coronavirus deaths and 3,395 cases.
Almost two million people in the North East of England will be banned from socialising with other households, following a “concerning” rise in Covid-19, Matt Hancock announced. He also unveiled £2.7bn extra for the NHS over winter, and doubled care home infection control cash to £1bn.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard warned No.10’s compromise over the Internal Market Bill may not get through the Lords. “The government is still asking Parliament to break international law,” he told the BBC.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps put Slovenia and Guadeloupe on the ‘red list’ of countries for quarantine, but said Thailand and Singapore were now free from such curbs.
A third of lone parents have received no child maintenance payments at all from their ex-partners during the coronavirus lockdown, a survey shared with HuffPost UK revealed.
David Cameron revealed to Times Radio that he volunteered at his local foodbank in Chipping Norton. The news was not universally welcomed.
What I’m Reading
China Is Winning The Trade War - Quartz