Why it does, and doesn't, matter if Matt Hancock hits his 100,000 tests target

The government must define their aims to prove the usefuness of target numbers.

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The government is likely to just meet, or just fall short, of its target of 100,000 coronavirus tests a day.

Does it matter? Well, as with the last Labour government’s target to reduce waiting times at Accident & Emergency to four hours for under for 95 per cent of emissions, yes and no. Labour didn’t meet their target, which they were supposed to hit by the end of 2004 until the first quarter of 2005, but they achieved their aim, which was to decrease waiting times and improve A&E performance. Similarly, it doesn’t really matter if Matt Hancock hits his target: what matters is that he has achieved his aim, which is to significantly increase the scale of testing.

The bigger problem is not Hancock missing his target, but that for a variety of reasons outside his control, the government will miss out on many of the secondary benefits of having a target.

Because for most of the month, the government hasn’t known what its exit strategy is, and it’s not clear whether a testing target has been particularly useful in terms of boosting that aim. It may be that the United Kingdom has ended up with a surfeit of testing centres, which people have to travel to, potentially spreading the disease, when what we need is a large number of mobile testing centres. Or it may be that we have too many in cities or towns with large hospitals and not enough to transition to a model of living more like in Taiwan or Hong Kong. We simply don’t know, because we don’t yet know exactly what the government is aiming to do next, nor will we until they publish their exit strategy on Monday

Given that confusion about aim, it’s difficult to come up with a better target than this one, though there are plenty of holes in this target. It would make a lot more sense, in my view, for the government to be aiming to increase testing capacity (and if they had aimed for the capacity to do 100,000 tests, they would have already comfortably met that one), but that’s because I know what I want the government to aim for. Without clarity of aim, you can’t have a clearer target.  

The government hasn’t had that clarity because, for most of the last month, the Prime Minister, the government’s chief arbiter, has been either ill or recovering. That has also meant going without the full benefit of the other knock-on bonus of any target: giving the Prime Minister the opportunity to identify individual and institutional weaknesses in the system. Have the overarching issues around procurement, not only of tests but of personal protective equipment, been about ministerial failings – or do they speak to problems elsewhere within the NHS system?

Long-term readers will know that I’ve been of the opinion for a long time that Matt Hancock is not the problem; the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 is. Long before this crisis hit, allies of Hancock were keen to revisit parts of the Act, too. The problem is that, of course, Hancock is not going to look at any shortcomings of this process and conclude that he (and I) are wrong about where the problem is, and because the Prime Minister was ill, there is no one to fulfil this function.

So for those reasons, largely outside the government’s control, the knock-on benefits of the 100,000 tests a day target have largely gone unrealised – whether they hit it or not.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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