Why No 10 can’t blame Matt Hancock for its coronavirus testing failures

The Health Secretary may have set a target of 100,000 tests a day but Boris Johnson set one of 250,000. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Bus for Matt Hancock? The Telegraph reports that Downing Street sources have described the Health Secretary’s pledge that the UK will be conducting 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of April – a target that the government is nowhere near meeting – as “arbitrary” and “vague” – while the same paper reports that supplies of personal protective equipment are being shipped from the United Kingdom to the rest of Europe despite shortages here because of failures to get a grip on procurement. 

Most seriously of all, OpenDemocracy’s James Cusick has got hold of a memo showing that the United Kingdom is using a coronavirus test that misses a quarter of positive casesTo take them from the top: it’s true to say that Hancock's 100,000 tests target is a figure plucked from the ether in order to ease some negative headlines for the government. As Katy Balls wrote in the Guardian at the time, many in government took the view that if the Health Secretary could not meet the target, he would have to face the consequences.

The target is meaningless because we don’t know what the government’s objective is. Is it to prevent  hospitals key workers from becoming vectors of infection - so you need enough tests to test not only patients and medical staff, but delivery drivers, shop workers, teachers and so on. If that's the aim, the target may be wildly extravagant. Is it to transition to a mode of living similar to that in Taiwan, Hong Kong and now Denmark? If that’s the case, the target may well be inadequate. 

The suspicion in some circles is that Hancock is now being fitted for the role of scapegoat. Downing Street veterans have long assumed that when push came to shove, the Health Secretary would carry the can for the early failures, just as Peter Carington had to resign as Foreign Secretary despite not being the author of the defence cuts that endangered the Falklands. An interesting test of which will be if the government’s new strategy of rebutting coverage it dislikes on its blog extends to the Telegraph’s story.

But the awkward truth for Downing Street is that it is 150,000 tests fewer than the 250,000 originally mooted by Boris Johnson. If the government has a passion for plucking big and meaningless figures out of the air, and confusing its anti-viral strategy with its comms strategy, then that particular disease isn’t confined to the Health Secretary. Blame is unlikely to be easily contained to his person, either.

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.

Free trial CSS