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The Book of Leviticus describes the scapegoat ritual. The high priest lays his hands on the head of a live goat, and confesses “over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel…and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited”.
Is this also a description of the fate awaiting Matt Hancock, who has set a goal of delivering 100,000 swab tests by Friday?
We will be brief about his chances of succeeding. George Eustice announced at yesterday’s press conference that the last daily figure is 29,058 tests. So the total must be upped by the best part of 70,000 a day if the Health Secretary is to meet his target.
It would be an understatement to describe that as a bit of a stretch. And this site detects no confidence in Government that it will be hit. But expect a vertiginious rise in tests over the next few days none the less.
In simple terms, Hancock is now taking the tests to the people rather than rely on the people to go to the tests. Until last week, only certain categories of people, such as NHS staff and social care workers, were eligible, and they had to travel to regional testing centres.
The Health Secretary has widened eligibility to include other essential workers; set up mobile testing centres; organised home testing; brought in the private sector and the army. A new phone system crashed; is now steadier.
So we shall see. Thinking about delivery takes us to policy – and the politics. Where did that 100,000 figure come from? Government sources insist that it was an “internal target” that was simply made external. Why? The question draws one back into the tangled story of the Government, testing and tracing.
As Charlotte Gill wrote on this site last week, Ministers and advisers have been through at least three iterations of policy.
First came a period of testing and tracing, lasting until roughly the end of March. Then it was wound down: to cut a very long story short, key advisers had always seen testing as no longer effective once the virus could no longer be contained. That was the second stage. It caused a media clamour.
Hancock knocked it stone cold dead on April 2 by announcing the target at the Government’s daily press conference – in a deeply personalised terms after his own return from illness. “I’m determined we’ll get there,” he declared.
Some of his colleagues believe that he thus gained a tactical win but set himself up for a strategic loss – namely, the missing of the target later this week, complete with the inevitable media and Opposition calls for him to “consider his position”.
But these criticisms must be seen in context. For it is impossible to separate the politics of the tests from the politics of the virus more widely – in particular, the lockdown.
The Health Secretary is seen as the leading champion in Cabinet of keeping it going, just as Rishi Sunak is viewed as the leading proponent of winding it down. The truth is more subtle, which is why this site has resisted commissioning one of its series of boxing illustrations showing the two going at each other hammer and tongs.
Hancock is an economist, who cut his teeth at the Bank of England. So he appreciates what the shutdown is doing to lives and livelihoods. And Sunak is a politician, who knows that if the NHS collapses the Government will too.
The two men are basically representing the interests of their departments within the quad of Dominic Raab, Michael Gove plus both of them which, in Boris Johnson’s absence, has been leading the Government’s response to the virus. The Health Secretary is advancing and defending his department’s position.
Which leads us to the broader question of Hancock’s position within the Government. Downing Street has a long collective memory – enough, certainly, to remember that the Health Secretary stood for the leadership last year.
Former rivals of Boris Johnson with own ambitions have their cards marked within institutional Number Ten. January’s Cabinet promotions were based on loyalty, non-leaking and, we were told, “competence”. In practice, this has looked a lot like Ministers getting on with whatever Number Ten wants without asking too many questions.
Hancock is just a bit more fizzy, and now more senior, than most of the newcomers. We haven’t found the hostility to him from Downing Street that some have claimed. However, we detect a coolness about the tests target.
“He’s not always the most collegiate person to work with,” grumbled one Minister. But another, who is champing at the bit to relax the lockdown, has a different take. “Even those who don’t like him should admire the energy and dedication he’s thrown at fighting the virus.”
One observer within the machine argues that the mere announcement of the target put a rocket under delivery of the tests that otherwise would never have been launched.
“It’s a bit like the 1960s and America or Russia declaring that they’ll put a man on the moon in a decade,” he said. “Saying that you’ll do so means that you have to strain every sinew to try. So even if Matt misses his target, he’ll have delivered a mass of tests that would otherwise never have been delivered.”
The truth is that Hancock is exposed in any event – even if you believe that the third stage of Government policy, the shift to a South Korean-style track and test approach, has come late.
Each NHS worker without a protective gown; every social care worker who hasn’t been tested; all shifts in policy, whether made in Downing Street or not; each day that passes with the country still in lockdown, with the Department of Health making the case for caution; every slow Turkish PPE consignment – all are heaped on his head.
Which isn’t to say that he won’t have made mistakes including, on our calculation of the timetable, relying for too long on Public Health England and the NHS to deliver core targets and policies.
But that will be up to the inevitable inquiry to decide and, in the meantime, the Health Secretary may take comfort from polling showing growing media unpopularity – as a press feeling the pinch of falling sales hammers desperately on his door. Not to mention relief at achieving his main goal to date: the non-collapse of the NHS.
So Boris Johnson is unlikely to lay his manly hands on Hancock’s head, confess over him all the iniquities of the Government, and despatch the ScapeCock with a kick in the backside into the wilderness of the backbenches. The Health Secretary knows rather too much about the inside story of government and the virus for that. One wouldn’t want to wake up and find it spashed all over the papers. In any event, how many energetic Ministers are there?
All the same, the urge to find a scapegoat is dug deep into the irrational wellsprings of human psychology. Someone must take the blame. Someone must be punished. In one sense, Hancock is unlike the goat, of course. It didn’t volunteer. The Health Secretary has. He does the job he does because he stepped up to do it. A point of which he will be grimly aware.
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