The government’s obsession with catchy slogans is distracting us from serious failings

Rachel Shabi
·4-min read
Boris Johnson's government announced tighter lockdown measures with the slogan:
Boris Johnson's government announced tighter lockdown measures with the slogan:

Last week, the government announced tighter lockdown measures with the adage: “A stitch in time saves nine”. And an anxious nation responded on cue, noting the chutzpah of a government so catastrophically late to a first Covid lockdown using this phrase for the second, or rolling eyes at this latest stand-in for rationally explained policy. Google saw a spike in the number of people searching for the meaning of the phrase, chirruped the BBC website, turning the slogan into a talking point.

The same thing happened earlier this month with government plans for a mass testing programme named Operation Moonshot. The £100bn proposal has been roundly dismissed as scientifically unsound, but upon hearing that term, you just knew that commentators would start blathering about Apollo 11 missions and broadcasters would run footage of space rocket launchers.

These phrases are catnip to political commentators driven by rolling news and social media, chasing views and clicks with gossip and tit bits. It all adds up to a sort of governmental dissembling, with sections of the media serving as message-spreaders. But the trouble is that, in all the coverage of the government’s sloganeering, we lose sight of its serious failings. And those failings are leading to more lockdown restrictions, rising infections and a heavier economic hit.

Countries that quietly got a decent test and trace system in place – yes, without even bragging about it being “world-beating” – are getting up and running again. But in the UK this has gone badly wrong, with much of the system hived off to the private sector rather than running within a depleted but functional public health system. Billions have gone to private contractors such as Deloitte, Serco and Sitel, while experienced public health workers, biomedical scientists, contact tracers and laboratory managers have been cut out of the equation, left to foretell the terrible consequences of the government’s foolishness and beyond frustrated at not being tasked to help.

There is no rationale for setting up a privatised test and trace operation from scratch, rather than scaling up an existing, networked public health system. Yet how often do we hear this discussed, or the government pressed for an explanation?

Weeks ago, as schools reopened and the country was urged back to the office, the whole thing fell down, with desperately worried parents and carers for the vulnerable unable to get tests. Much of this chaos was down to bad government planning, but in truth the entire testing system is an easily collapsing structure precisely because it has been set up as a disjointed, largely private operation.

The megalabs causing the most recent backlog and delays are shrouded in secrecy. We do know these labs were staffed by summer volunteers, who have now resumed day jobs in academia (as might have been predicted). And we know the rapidly set up labs do not have long-established “sample pathways” to return results. Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, which represents some 130 NHS labs, told me that this is bread and butter to labs working within the public health system, since they electronically feed thousands of blood, urine and other routine test results back to surgeries and clinics. “That’s what we’ve been doing for decades,” he says, noting that the megalabs have “broken the link”.

It is just one measure of a testing system beset with problems. In June, while samples could not be matched to patients and tens of thousands of tests were spoiled, the Royal College of Pathologists issued a list of testing failures, including poor specimen-taking, slow turnaround and poor quality control. But with secrecy surrounding the mega-labs it’s hard to say if these have been fully taken into account. The whole thing is incomprehensible to scientists more used to protocols and transparency (at least outside commercial contexts). One lab professional with decades of experience says they cannot believe the government handed out contracts in this way.

And testing is just one piece of the puzzle. Contact tracing, run through problem-riddled private call centres rather than skilled local authority teams, has also weakened and stalled a process designed to protect us. Local government leaders are crying out for more control over this critical work they know how to do, in communities they know well. Medics are calling for the megalabs to be integrated into an existing diagnostic system given more funding, rather than running in parallel to it.

Now a poll shows 74 per cent of the public want test and trace taken off private firms. Given the importance of test and trace, why aren’t these demands dominating our news cycle? Until we focus on the substance, not the slogans, we will be stuck with this falling, costly system that seems not so much a pandemic response as a form of government-enabled extortion.

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