Grim milestone as virus strategy scrutiny intensifies

Politicians will face serious questions over PPE and the timing of lockdown.

Grim milestone as virus strategy scrutiny intensifies STV

More than 1600 people in Scotland have now lost their lives to Covid-19.

A third of those deaths have been in care homes, a sector which has highlighted repeated shortcomings in the dispatch of personal protection equipment (PPE) and of a lack of testing to establish who might be carrying the virus.

Yesterday the First Minister, with a heavy air of resignation, conceded that she will be answering questions on PPE for weeks to come, acknowledging that not everyone on the frontline will get what they need and want 100% of the time.

Today, Nicola Sturgeon announced a National Rapid Action Group to tackle local issues in relation to care homes. Sceptics will ask why an ‘action’ group is only now being established when we are well into this crisis

At Holyrood and Westminster, the opposition, as is their function, are now probing with greater vigour how the government is handling this crisis. The charge sheet indicts on two key grounds: lockdown occurred too late and preparations have been completely inadequate, leading to a strategy of catch up on PPE and testing.

It is certainly true that in the week leading to lockdown, Sturgeon’s rhetoric consistently talked up the gravity and implications of what was coming. It was in contrast to the tone of the Prime Minister. But in essence, although the management of the strategy is a matter for the Scottish Government, there has been a common UK approach to lockdown and social distancing.

The aggravated crisis in care homes, the persistent issue of PPE, the low levels of testing by international comparison all paint a picture of governments that have been caught out. The opposition charge is that there is a causal link between acting too late and those issues which have brought so much angst to so many.

Already attention is turning to the aftermath. In the Commons today, Sir Ed Davey called for a public inquiry, a call that was side-stepped by Dominic Raab. Matt Hancock was grilled on his assertion there will be 100,000 tests every day by the end of next week despite the fact the government is way off that figure.

All UK leaders are now on the back foot, having to shuffle from the heat of parliamentary scrutiny. Their focus rightly is on the here and now, on the crisis that demands their full attention and they are not going to play ball on the nature of the inevitable post-virus probe into their handling of the pandemic.

The media are now in full scrutiny mode too and with every passing interview of every scientist and clinician, the decibel level around the charge of ‘sleeping at the wheel’ grows.

In the Commons it was alleged the government wasted three-and-a-half weeks after scientific warnings on the need for a lockdown on February 26. The charge was refuted, Dominic Raab saying the government has followed scientific advice meticulously and at every stage. Time and an inquiry will vindicate or roast such a statement.

There is a very broad consensus that lockdown occurred too late but less agreement if this is a failure of science or politics or both.

Last night Channel 4 News, after lengthy conversations with many of the scientists advising the UK Government, reported that it was felt there was not enough data by late February to come to definitive conclusions about strategy.

However, they also reported that by March 2 the government was being told that the virus was being transmitted in a sustained way in the UK.

The former chief scientific adviser to the UK Government, Sir David King, has said that perhaps the scientists were being too circumspect, mindful that the politicians were instinctively averse to anything that would substantially end economic activity. Did they couch advice in overly neutral terms? Last Sunday’s revelations in The Sunday Times suggest not.

It will be for an inquiry to determine if the scientists got their advice right and at the appropriate time and to determine whether politicians stalled for economic rather than public health reasons. Sir David is astonished that Rwanda and Uganda went into lockdown quicker than the nations of the UK.

There is also the uncomfortable truth that will plague politicians; a delay in moving to lockdown for reasons of paralysis in decision-making will have cost lives.

But the questions surrounding the gestation and implementation of the current strategy is for another day even if the echoes of the bereaved serve as a reminder that when all of this passes, the questions for all UK leaders will be the most difficult they have ever faced.