Wanted: a scapegoat for the coronavirus chaos

That sinking feeling: A cartoon from the Times predicting Matt Hancock’s downfall. © Peter Brookes

Should Matt Hancock be fired? With the opening of Britain’s first ‘virtual’ Parliament, attention is fixed on the government’s mishandling of the pandemic – and who is most to blame for it.

Yesterday’s reopening of Parliament was a bizarre one. It was the first chance for Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, to confront the prime minister but – since Boris Johnson is still recovering from the virus – Dominic Raab faced him instead.

And because of the lockdown, only a few MPs were present, with the rest taking part via video links – the first time in history this has happened.

Of those few, no one was under more pressure than the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who was there to give an update on the pandemic. The newspapers were brimming with articles about government blunders and suggestions that he would be made a scapegoat.

The list of accusations was a grim one, chiefly focusing on the government’s failure to supply enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to health workers.

While the RAF has been sent to bring supplies from Turkey, it has emerged that thousands of British companies manufacturing PPE tried in vain to offer their stocks to the NHS. Then, because they were either ignored or had to wait weeks for an answer from the government, many ended up sending their goods abroad. One UK company alone exported six million face masks.

Extra British manufacturers are now producing gowns, of which the NHS uses 450,000 a day. But according to one, “We have started probably four weeks later than we should have done.”

Meanwhile, experts have condemned the NHS procurement service as “chaos”, with hospitals competing for supplies. Some have received more PPE than they need, and others not enough.

There is particular concern over care homes trying to order supplies through the NHS. One group says that only two of its 131 homes have managed to do so because the system is so complicated.

To add to the government’s woes, a senior civil servant, Sir Simon McDonald, said this week that its decision not to join an EU scheme for procuring PPE was politically motivated – suggesting that pro-Brexit ministers were to blame. Though he later retracted his statement, many still believe it.

Testing for the virus is another huge problem. Matt Hancock has promised that 100,000 tests a day will be carried out by the end of the month, this time next week. But, so far, there is capacity for just 40,000 – and only half of that is being used.

Should Matt Hancock be fired?

Blame game

Yes, some say. Hancock should go. Somebody has to be held responsible for all the mistakes, which may have cost thousands of lives, and the health minister is the obvious person. Boris Johnson cannot be blamed for the situation because he has been seriously ill. Hancock had been in charge of the NHS for 18 months by the time the virus reached the UK, so he should have been on top of the job.

No, says others. It is unfair to put all the blame on one person. The NHS was already in crisis from years of austerity when Hancock took over: even making it work properly in normal times was impossible. The government’s main mistake was failing to focus on the virus sooner – and that was down to Johnson and his close advisers who were putting all their energies into Brexit

You Decide

  1. Should the most senior person in a team always take responsibility for its failures?
  2. If you were running the government, what steps would you take to bring the pandemic under control?

Activities

  1. Some people have been making their own masks to stop them from touching their faces. Using a sewing kit and spare material, make masks for yourself and the rest of your family.
  2. Imagine that you are Matt Hancock. Write a two-page diary entry describing your day yesterday.

Some People Say...

“Real leadership is not about prestige, power, or status. It is about responsibility.”

Robert L Joss, American businessman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The government ministers closest to Boris Johnson are the ones who campaigned strongly to leave the EU – whereas Matt Hancock was a Remainer. Although he declared his support for Brexit after the referendum, and endorsed Boris Johnson after dropping out of the leadership contest, his U-turns have lost him credibility with the public. So, Johnson would not be sorry to see him go and has no reason to expect a backlash if he fires him.
What do we not know?
Whether Hancock’s promise of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month will be his undoing. Few believe that he can deliver on it: there is a shortage of testing equipment; health workers have complained that the testing stations are difficult to get to, and not open long enough. If the target is missed, that will be a good excuse to get rid of him. Although Boris Johnson had previously said he was aiming for 250,000 tests a day, he did not stick his neck out by giving himself a deadline.

Word Watch

Keir Starmer
A lawyer by training, he was elected Labour leader a fortnight ago and is expected to take a more moderate line than his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Dominic Raab
The foreign secretary. He is a passionate supporter of Brexit.
Scapegoat
Someone forced to take the blame for a bad outcome, even if it wasn’t their fault. The term comes from an ancient Jewish ritual of choosing a goat to take on the people’s sins, and then driving it into the wilderness.
Procurement
The process of getting hold of something. It is related to the historical term “procurator”, meaning a tax-collector.
Woes
Troubles.
Retracted
Withdrew (a statement or accusation) as untrue or unjustified. In chess, to retract is to change a move that you have made.

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