2007 - 2022

Now is not the time for Rebuttals

Reflecting on the Government’s ‘Response to Sunday Times Insight article’, published on Sunday, notably provided not by a Government Minister; even the pugnacious Michael Gove who promised the response but has not personally delivered it, but by an anonymous “Government spokesman” brings to mind two salient points.
The speed of response and degree of effort and rigor applied by the Government to rebutting a long, detailed critical newspaper article is some way in advance of either the speed or effectiveness of the Government’s general response to the virus, in terms of its real activity on the ground actually supporting the NHS and key workers fight the outbreak.
Here is the basic fact: Britain has had more time than most other countries affected by COVID-19 to prepare for a response to the virus, and to learn from the experience of other countries struck earlier in the pandemic distribution cycle, and in real time; but the infection profile, clinical effects and deaths in the UK population (illustrated copiously in public statistics and comparative graphs), have proved the British experience of the pandemic to be among the worst in the world. This is where we are. This is not the time for Rebuttals. Government time is better spent fixing the problem than searching for excuses. Indeed it is striking that one of the core messages of this rebuttal is that the Government is keen to spread the blame, or pass the buck. 
Hence, the rebuttal refers three times to following the scientific advice, and the third time turns it into a general hand-washing defence: “The government followed scientific advice at all times”. It immediately emphasises this reliance on the scientists with this statement: “Claiming that there was scientific consensus on this is just wrong”. This might lead the reader to believe that the Government was therefore aware that there was no scientific consensus; in which case, what did it do about it, what opinions did it seek from outside the consensus, and how did it resolve the problem? 
Throughout the rebuttal some choice quotes are selected from well-known scientists supporting the view that in January the risks presented by the virus in Britain were “low”, including a list of “Examples of scientific commentary from the time”. What this tenuous, drip-feed passing of responsibility does not do is illustrate the lack of consensus that is now claimed, but it could suggest that NERVTAG, Sage and the Cabinet were determinedly inward-looking, self reliant and erroneously self-sufficient. Notably there is little reference here in the rebuttal to international comparisons; the real pandemic simultaneously unfolding, and observable in the rest of the world. The picture the reader is left with is of government lost in obsessive introspection. Notice that the rebuttal does not specifically claim that the advice Government received was correct, merely that it followed it; with this now well-rehearsed claim, that – given the finger is pointed elsewhere – looks increasingly Delphic: “we have taken the right steps at the right time to combat it [the virus]”. It is an extraordinary way to go about Government in the middle of a crisis.
The Rebuttal begins with an extraordinary claim:
“Our response has ensured that the NHS has been given all the support it needs to ensure everyone requiring treatment has received it, as well as providing protection to businesses and reassurance to workers”.
This does not assist the reader to read the rest of the rebuttal with a high degree of credence in the content. Notice the authority of the opening statement that the NHS has been given “all the support it needs”, even for those who may find this dubious proposition wholly defensible they will find the carefully crafted wording of the rest of the sentence gently and discreetly removes much of the stuffing; for in only ensuring all those who need it in the NHS receive care, it is carefully phrased to say nothing about those beyond the NHS (in care homes or at home for example), and there is simply no reference to testing, or ventilators, or PPE for NHS workers; and the “workers” generally are in receipt of “reassurance”, although the cash value of this consolation is difficult to determine. 
The Rebuttal defence of the Prime Minister is simply general assertion: “The Prime Minister has been at the helm of the Government response to Covid 19”.
It doesn’t mean anything, because no basis of measurement is offered. It is absurd. In the immortal phrase of Mandy Rice-Davies, “they would say that, wouldn’t they”. Indeed, because the PM has been ill with the virus; in the strict sense of the statement, it is not true, and that observation is not offered as a criticism of the PM, it merely points up the complete pointlessness of making the original assertion. The country has been without the PM “at the helm” for weeks. The real question is whether anybody is likely to notice the difference, whether he is “at the helm” or not. Noticeably the Rebuttal has little to say about the PM missing five straight COBRA meetings, on COVID-19. They wouldn’t mention that, would they?
Rebutting the accusation of Britain sending China scarce PPE, the Government argument is that: “Between April 2-April 15 we have received over 12 million pieces of PPE in the UK from China”. It is difficult to see the value of this argument, unless the implication is that China would not have sent the PPE without the prior guarantee of reciprocity for our delivery. Surely not? The problem is that there is a serious supply crisis in PPE in Britain. The argument has been made that the problem is distribution, not supply. The real issue here, however is that, either way if it is supply, we simply could not afford to send anyone the supplies we already possessed. It was wrong, and the Chinese would have understood our difficulty. If the problem is not supply but distribution, then this is entirely the current executive responsibility of the Government to fix it, which it has conspicuously failed to do; and if it is arguing about supply when the problem is distribution then the Government is merely making smoke, and deflecting public attention from the real issue. 
The Rebuttal has little to say about ventilators, save to say the NHS currently has spare capacity, and v the Government “is investing in further capacity”. The spare capacity, by all accounts is the result of the lockdown and the remarkable effort and technical ingenuity in the NHS staff and support reconfiguring the whole NHS, including the equipment. Notably investment in ventilator capacity is not delivery, and current anecdotal evidence is not favourable to the investment choices that have been made by Government.  
The Rebuttal of the criticisms of Operation Cygnus in 2016, which highlighted failures in readiness for a pandemic, are answered with this: 
“The Government has been extremely proactive in implementing lessons learnt around pandemic preparedness, including from Exercise Cygnus. This includes being ready with legislative proposals that could rapidly be tailored to what became the Coronavirus Act, plans to strengthen excess death planning, planning for recruitment and deployment of retired staff and volunteers, and guidance for stakeholders and sectors across government”.
We are prepared by the earlier tropes and devices used in the Rebuttal to scrutinise the real meaning under the seductive claims made here. The words “proactive” and “implementing lessons” are selected to give an impression of Government energy and action. But what sort of action is involved? Window dressing. Notice that all this activity is largely “legislative proposals” and desk planning of one kind or another. 
Dr Philip Lee was a Conservative Health Minister who attended the Operation Cygnus dry-run in 2016. He understood the shortcomings that were revealed by the Cygnus operation, and is horrified at what has unfolded now, leading him to believe the real action and investment required of the Government by the failures exposed by Cygnus was never undertaken. He said as recently as 19th April to the Observer, that the government was advised to: 
“strengthen the surge capability and capacity in operational resources in certain areas. If demand outstrips local supply, there will be a need to scale up the response, for example to regional level. This was particularly true for excess deaths, social care and the NHS…… The question I would very much like to ask the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Michael Gove, who has responsibility in the Cabinet Office, is when did they read the Cygnus report that has not been published and, having read that report, why did they conclude not to increase testing, PPE and ventilator capacity in January?”
The government may be better advised specifically to answer Lee’s questions, one by one. 


Comments (5)

Leave a Reply to kate macleod Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. James Anderson says:

    The SCCL’s website has some interesting information included in the letter from Matt Hancock confirming the terms of reference for the Chief Executive on 29 March 2019. Under the Public Service Aims, the letter refers to NHS Trusts and the procurement of facilities or services to persons or bodies who carry out healthcare services within the meaning of the NHS Act and which are funded by the Department of Health and Social Care.”


    And as early as 11Feb, they knew there was a problem looming (https://wwwmedia.supplychain.nhs.uk/media/Supplier-Letter-DHSC-11-February-2020.pdf).

    And in the Supplier Code of Conduct, the main principle for suppliers is – “NHS Supply Chain delivers an end to end logistics and supply service to the English NHS.” (https://wwwmedia.supplychain.nhs.uk/media/supplier_conduct_code.pdf)

  2. Mike Harland says:


    It’s now a month since this article of 20 March appeared in the blog Trupublica.org warning of what was about to happen and quoting the Chief Medical Officer for England (2010- 2019), Dame Sally Davis, telling the World Innovation Summit for Health in December 2016: “We’ve just had in the UK a three-day exercise on flu, on a pandemic that killed a lot of people,” Sally Davis told the World Innovation Summit for Health at the time. “It became clear that we could not cope with the excess bodies” –
    A Times article of Tuesday, December 27, 2016 reported:
    “NHS fails to cope with bodies in flu pandemic test […] The NHS failed tests of its ability to cope with a major flu outbreak, the chief medical officer has revealed. A three-day training exercise showed it was not ready for a severe flu attack and that “a lot of things need improving”, Professor Dame Sally Davies said.
    She warned that the world was intensely vulnerable and society would struggle to deal with the huge number of people killed by a serious pandemic.
    Operation Cygnus involved testing co-ordination between hospitals, Whitehall and disease-tracking experts in a scenario where tens of thousands of people were struck down by a virulent new strain of flu.
    New types of disease frequently jump from animals to humans and experts fear that it is only a matter of time before a …”

    Due to the paywall, I have no idea what the rest of the article says!

    A week later (28 March) the Telegraph published a fuller article by Paul Nuki “Exercise Cygnus uncovered …” – rather mysteriously, it does not mention Sally Davis’s response
    Over the next week, first on April 2 the Guardian has an article on Labour’s Jon Ashworth urging the government to publish the findings and then on April 5 an article reporting Phillip Lee, ex-Conservative MP under-SoS for Justice, as saying:
    “We knew we were not prepared for a pandemic from the Cygnus report,” Lee said. “It was a mistake not to publish it at the time. If we were not going to act on the lessons, then what was the point of the exercise?”

    It only goes to show how it took one non-MSM news comment source to highlight the truth and now almost a month before any notice was taken by the MSM, opposition party or government, and finally another non-MSM blog in Scotland and a conservative party defector to the LibDems to hammer that truth home.
    We can only hope a full investigation will take place and the former Chief Medical Officer can give her version (one must assume she is under some non-disclosure commitment in al lof this). People have died because of the downrating of a report at a time the government was already blindly fixated on its one big Brexit plan …

    1. Bill says:

      This type of response is inevitable as the modern politician, divorced from reality does not understand nor empathise with the rest of society. The nature of this problem goes way back to Thatcher and the exodus of droves of highly qualified and experienced medical staff from mainstream and public health who left the old DHSS and were therefore unavailable to inform and train more junior staff – not that many were replaced. the dismantling of the health service into discreet market units leads to variation in the basic service offered. There no longer seems to be a base line on a national scale. Witness the disparity in the availability of PPE across health board areas.

      As I have indicated elsewhere, the government has an espoused theory(what they say they will do) and a theory in action(what they actually) The vast gap between these two theories is currently evidenced in the absolute shambles of their management of the Covid epidemic. The Tories have been talking a good game for ten years,
      sadly the game that they have played has been dreadful. Someone ex military person suggested that during a war failing generals are replaced. Sadly the replacements for the current failing politicians do not exist in the Tory party


    2. John S Warren says:

      Thank you for the rich vein of supporting information that flows from your links. In the article I mentioned in passing only that the Cygnus Report has never been published (like others that are supposed to have been published by this government, but it fails to do so), but it is quite an obvious and telling gap. It is also too often forgotten that in spite of nightly invitations Government ministers are never available to be interviewed on C4 News or Newsnight. We are reduced, as one wit described it, to the regular daily Hancock’s half hour briefing, but no proper scrutiny at all; even by Parliament – for a month.

      I was trying to review the audit trail of public information on the purposes of the Nightingale Hospital in London but was unable to establish the facts so did not discuss it in the article. Here is my problem. The London Nightingale is now only to be used – as I understand it now – where the patient is triaged first and has been intubated and ventilated already at other London hospitals. My impression had been it was a panicked response to the threat of shortages in ICU units, and would be using ventilators at scale; but with 4,000 beds, and only 5,500 ventilators in total in the UK at the outset of the pandemic that always looked strange to me. I am simply not sure I understand what the original purpose of the London Nightingale was, whether it has now changed, and if so – why? Like so much of this unfolding story, it is very difficult to follow the logic of the Government’s “plan”, save ‘wash your hands and stay at home’.

      1. kate macleod says:

        They UK govt had a plan. it was to let lots of people die from boris johnsons’ age group onwards die and the virus survivors have immunity (‘herd immunity’).

        The Australian PM (though also right wing and on many days also a trump wannabe, trump’s ‘the australian trump’)i think referenced the UK in saying something like :

        “I want to make it clear the Australian govt’s policy is not herd immunity. The Australian govt’s priority is the preservation of human life.”

        The UK’s ‘dilemma’ is that it can’t accept that micro genocidal choice was clearly and knowingly made and devolved governments accepted it.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.