Richard North, 19/05/2020  

Both the Telegraph and Guardian sketch-writers are today remarking on the weariness of Matt Hancock, the mendacious health secretary.

In more normal times, his plight might evoke some sympathy. Holding down the top job in the department of health is hard enough, but standing up for a government which is visibly losing its grip on events, while tackling the Covid-19 epidemic, might be considered the ultimate definition of stress.

Since the epidemic is now in its fourth month, with no sign of the political pressure abating, perhaps we ought to be thinking of organising job shares for senior ministers, or doubling up on the posts so that they can work shifts between them.

Maybe, even, we might consider virtual clones, driven by AI. That way, there could always be a fresh minister available to explain away the latest crisis or to give the media statements on demand, without having to put up with impudent sketch-writers making personal comments.

Furthermore, the point is not without serious dimensions. We do not allow airline pilots or even lorry drivers to soldier on endlessly without breaks. Yet it is apparently acceptable to drive politicians to the brink of exhaustion and beyond, yet still expect balanced decision-making and seamless policy.

On the other hand – and especially with this government – one could argue that ministers such as Hancock are the authors of their own misfortune. The top-down structure and their determination to micro-manage every aspect of the epidemic response means that they are over-worked and unable to distance themselves from the front line, nor able to take a strategic view.

It would be unrealistic, however, to expect this government to loosen its grip on the reins of power, or to entertain any significant restructuring of operations which might have the effect of reducing the burdens on ministers. As stress and fatigue take their toll, therefore, one can expect an ongoing deterioration in performance – if indeed that is possible.

Not uncommonly, high stress and fatigue levels trigger a rigidity of mind and a lack of flexibility, as well as a defensive demeanour and an inability to handle or respond adequately to criticism – evident in the reports from the media sketch-writers. In Hancock, we are looking at a seriously dysfunctional secretary of state.

The situation is not helped when the government has a great deal to be defensive about, not least in the handling of the care home crisis, where the more outspoken political commentators are beginning to muster the courage to call a spade a spade.

Thus we have mega-mouth Piers Morgan holding forth, telling the world how he has been "sickened" by the behaviour of Hancock, Gove and Johnson "in telling brazen lies about the situation in care homes". This is "a scandal not a protective shield", he says.

Even the egregious Polly Toynbee is pitching in, referring to Hancock's "dumbfounding claim" that, "right from the start" the government has "tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes … we've made sure care homes have the resources they need".

"What sentient voter doesn’t know that to be a flat-out lie?", Toynbee observes, firmly staking a claim for territory where Andrew Marr and the BBC fears to tread. "Taking the public for fools destroys trust", she says, arguing – not without good cause – that "trust is ebbing away".

As the situation deteriorates, even initiatives which might otherwise have attracted strong public support are attracting scepticism, if not downright cynicism.

Thus, Sunday's announcement of the government's intention to boost funding on research and manufacture of a coronavirus vaccine – to the tune of £84 million – was seen in some quarters as an attempt to distract attention from the care home crisis.

When this coincided with what had all the hallmarks of a government sponsored good news story on the possible availability of "30 million doses" of vaccine by September, the cynics were out in force.

The reference was to the vaccine under development by Oxford University, with a global licensing agreement having been signed between the university and AstraZeneca to manufacture 30 million doses for the UK, as part of an agreement to deliver 100 million doses in total.

As it turns out, the cynicism seems justified. Yesterday brought news that this "front-runner" vaccine had failed to perform in animal trials, leading to concerns that, even at best, it may be only partially effective.

The vaccine had been administered to rhesus macaque monkeys as part of the ongoing development and all became infected when challenged as judged by recovery of virus genomic RNA from nasal secretions. There was no difference in the amount of viral RNA detected from this site in the vaccinated monkeys as compared to the unvaccinated animals.

According to Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, the lack of difference in viral load was "very significant", suggesting that the vaccine might not be able to prevent the spread of the virus between infected individuals. This is enough, Ball suggests, to warrant "an urgent re-appraisal" of the human trials.

While this could spell the end of the line for the Oxford vaccine, there are around 80 other candidates, and a US trial is delivering promising results, the vaccine demonstrating an ability to provoke antibodies during tests on humans.

However, this is only the first stage of many, while the Oxford setback is extremely bad news. Not days after the announcement of September availability, this is looking unrealistically optimistic – which it always was. Hancock, who has pinned his personal reputation on the early availability of a vaccine, is not looking like a lucky general.

In all respects, it is beginning to look as if the Johnson "honeymoon" is running out of steam. Bad news continues to mount on the care home front, as it emerges agency staff were spreading Covid-19 between care homes, a situation known by Public Health England in April, yet care home providers were only told last week.

A similar failure of communication has been reported in hospitals, where NHS England failed to inform hospital trusts of the extent to which Covid-19 infection was spreading on the wards.

The government is also attracting criticism for its delay in recognising loss of smell and taste as possible symptoms of Covid-19, the result being that up to 200,000 cases may have been missed, with the lack of self-isolation contributing to the spread of the disease.

With a new mood of criticism in the air, UK regional mayors are complaining about the London-centric approach to controlling the epidemic, while local authorities are beginning to wake up and demand a "much more locally focused" response to the coronavirus crisis.

Schools are still the centre of controversy and the debate continues over whether, and how, students should return, and whether it is safe to do so – with unhappy evidence mounting.

The usual suspects are making waves about the lack of transparency in the government's approach, while tension is increasing between government and its scientific advisors, as the blame game escalates.

Peston is on the case and even parliament is beginning to stir. The science and technology committee has written to Johnson, attacking the government for missing the "critical moment" to stop Covid-19, as it made its "pivotal" decision to cut back testing. Their 19-page letter offers some friendly advice on how to manage the epidemic. Next time, when the advice has been ignored – as undoubtedly it will be – it might not be so friendly.

Meanwhile, the virus that is the cause of it all continues to surprise. Care homes in London are reporting possible fresh outbreaks, with residents testing positive more than 30 days after suffering first symptoms.

And that points to the real issue. For all their efforts and impending exhaustion, ministers still haven't got a grip on this epidemic. People are now less tolerant and want answers. Sympathy might be hard to find.

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