FRIDAY’S Spectator Evening Blend email, detailing the collapse of confidence in government policy expressed inter alia by the former Health Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, said: ‘The greatest challenge for the government in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak will be ensuring that the public trusts what it is doing’. And it asked whether ministers can stop a coronavirus panic.
The answer is Yes, but only if Boris Johnson gets off his back foot and takes a leaf out of President Trump’s book fast.
The President’s announcement of a State of Emergency on Friday evening, at his task force-flanked press conference set up to address the ‘Whole of America’, did just what it was designed to do: to stop public panic by inspiring public confidence.
Compare and contrast that with Mr Johnson’s dismal press conference of the previous day at which he succeeded in doing the reverse. A terrible choice of approach didn’t help: ‘I am levelling with you’ – as though he had not done so before. Nor did his choice of language: ‘Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’. Relying on clever clogs like Dr David Halpern and the wishful concept of growing ‘herd immunity’ he couldn’t have appeared less Churchillian or more downbeat. Forget fighting on the beaches. Just wash your hands, hope for the best and accept your fate.
For the public it was hardly reassuring – uncertainty and inaction inculcates a sense of panic, action does the opposite. It instills confidence. Struggling to find and give ‘answers’ is the problem not the solution.
You can watch his public confidence-destroying performance (and the Government’s uninspiring advisers) here.
The two announcements exposed the huge gulf in political culture that now exists between an ever-confident America and a UK that, despite Brexit, remains defeatist and seems to have lost its mojo.
Unlike the positive, front-foot Americans, the British political elite fails to see itself as it is – totally lacking in self awareness yet so sure of its own moral (woke) superiority. Come a crisis, their solution is to search for impossible answers – as the Spectator reports – dealing in risk-aversion and negatives rather than in action and doing something positive. By contrast with our American and Commonwealth cousins in Australia, there’s a terrible tendency here to complicate rather than to simplify.
And that, I suspect, is why Trump is loathed by so many here. He unnerves those who’ve become inured to the ‘modern’ (Blair onwards) managerial technocratic, process-driven approach to government. This is bad news normally but in a crisis it is a disaster. Trump is a doer, an action hero. He cuts through. He is decisive. He follows the principle that it is better to do something than nothing: you can always change direction in the air, but not if you never had lift-off in the first place.
And that is how our government’s response feels, rightly or wrongly: no lift-off yet. That, since it’s all too complicated to compute or predict (and there are plenty of experts in that) we’re just better letting the enemy virus take its course and accept the consequences.
What a difference it would make to see Boris flanked by a joint public and private sector task force as in the US, telling us what they can and will do:
The action he’s taking to increase the number of ICU beds for example; which companies are onside to help mitigate this shortage and national emergency and that no, it won’t mean throwing cancer, heart attack and stroke patients out on the streets; the plans for expanding testing, for prioritising doctors, nurses, health care workers and auxiliaries, with US style drive-by testing or innovative contactless testing for the rest of us.
The action he’s taking to fast-track the production and supply of testing kits and ventilators and when they are likely to come on stream.
That’s what Trump did.
If there was ever a time for a ‘roll-out’ of positive PR announcements to counter the daily (bad news) toll of new cases, it is now. Telling people to self isolate and how to wash their hands is simply not enough.
Border closures, enforced quarantine and whether we need to become ‘fortress Britain’ all need urgent re-assessment. Most of all though, people need to be reassured that the necessary positive health steps and food security measures are being taken on their behalf; that they can get treatment if they are ill.
Donald Trump showed the way on Friday with his State of Emergency declaration and marathon press conference with his Vice President, Mike Pence, introducing the task force brought together in an unprecedented public and private partnership, in a national effort to counter the disease and its spread.
You can read Breitbart’s account here.
These are the bullet points:
· The State of Emergency releasing $50 billion in funding
· Task force response led by authoritative and articulate medical experts
· Every state to set up emergency operations centres
· Commitment of co-operation from largest retailers and medical companies in the world
· Priority for increasing number of testing kits available – and new drive-by testing – Walmart, CVS, Target and Walgreens promising to assist
· Roche and Thermo Risher, as well as LabCorp and Quest, to speedily produce tests and government to quickly approve them for production
· Former competitors in the medical and supply industry working together to defeat virus
· Google’s 1,700 engineers to create website to help sick Americans locate testing sites
· Clearing red tape regulations that might hinder hospitals, doctors, and nursing homes to allow them to treat patients infected with the virus.
Watching it instilled the sense of confidence that they have a plan, are doing something, and that the best of American knowhow has been brought on board to effect it.
It is that sense that is lacking here. The Prime Minister needs to show similar initiative. The NHS whose best message seems to be ‘stay away’ because we are not equipped to help you or we’ll be overwhelmed, is showing none.
A national action plan co-opting the private sector leaders – retailers, the big supermarkets, private medical and health care providers and laboratories with the voluntary sector and the emergency services alongside, would build public trust nd stop panic. What an opportunity for Big Pharma to do good and retrieve its reputation. If such action has been or is being taken then tell us. If not, here is some advice for the PM: Forbid your civil servants from telling you it’s not possible and why they can’t; only how they can.