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22 April 2020

Who’s to blame for the UK’s lack of medical equipment?

The difficulties could be the result of bad ministers, bad structures, bad luck or some combination of all three. 

By Stephen Bush

The British government’s procurement problems are centre-stage in today’s papers. The Guardian reports that the government missed multiple opportunities to source at least 16 million masks in four weeks. Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething is under fire from the opposition parties after abandoning his own target of 5,000 tests a day – he says because Wales does not need more tests at present. Back in England, the Telegraph has followed up OpenDemocracy’s scoop about false positives in the UK’s coronavirus tests, and found that thousands of healthcare professionals may have been sent back to work while infectious. The Scottish government is on track to hit its testing target: however, they are aiming for a much smaller number of tests a day, at 3,500. 

The big problem with all of these targets is that we can’t assess them. Is Gething right to say it’s mission accomplished in Wales? Well, if the target is to prevent Welsh hospitals becoming vectors of infection, sure. But as he himself concedes, Wales will need to hugely increase the size and scope of its testing infrastructure if the country wants to be able to ease the lockdown. The Scottish government has done exceptionally well as far as its own test target is concerned  but again, we don’t know if they can scale up to the required level to ease the lockdown. Indeed, we don’t even really know if the Welsh, Scottish or Westminster governments want to emulate the new way of life in South Korea, Taiwan, Austria and France – or if the United Kingdom’s governments are betting it all on a vaccine. And while it is good news that human trials will begin this week, the road to vaccines can be long and filled with false dawns – it shouldn’t be any government’s Plan A as far as getting out of lockdown is concerned.  

As for the difficulties in procurement  are they the result of bad ministers, bad structures, bad luck or some combination of all three? I wrote at the start of this crisis that it would stress-test Boris Johnson’s governing style. But it’s also a stress-test of the decisions taken over the past decade: Andrew Lansley’s reform of the NHS in 2012, the decision to maintain spending increases for the core health service while overseeing big reductions in spending on social care. Either could be causing problems. Or, equally, the UK could simply have been unfortunate. 

The question is important but for opposition parties it is somewhat arid – because the answer can only be discovered over months and years, not over the coming weeks. That’s why, at least as far as the low politics are concerned, Labour’s decision to press hard as exit strategy is a more fruitful approach for them right now: because if the UK has a bungled exit after a closed-door discussion on leaving lockdown it won’t be so difficult to allocate blame.   

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