Boris Johnson’s coronavirus optimism hits testing reality

The British prime minister is making bold promises that aren’t being delivered.

Boris Johnson’s coronavirus optimism hits testing reality

LONDON — To steer the U.K. safely through the winter, Boris Johnson has to bridge two gaps: between capacity and demand for coronavirus tests, and between his own rhetoric and reality.

Having last week talked up the prospect of the U.K. being able to process, by next spring, “literally millions of tests … every single day,” deploying as-yet-untested technology in what he called a “moonshot,” Johnson this week faced a barrage of headlines about the failure of the current testing system to get even the basics right.

On Tuesday, his Health Secretary Matt Hancock was called to the House of Commons to listen to MPs’ concerns that a resurgence of the virus is increasing demand on the testing system, leading to people being directed — by the government’s online system — to travel hundreds of miles for an available test or being required to wait in some cases up to a week for a test to arrive at home. There are also reports of health care staff missing work for lack of a test. 

The contrast between the NASA-inspired ambition and the on-the-ground reality of tackling the pandemic is only the latest example of a pattern of behavior from Johnson’s government during the pandemic: the tendency to over-promise and then struggle to deliver.

There was the pledge of having a “world-beating” testing system by June 1; the commitment to a contact-tracing app that would be ready by mid-May (it’s due to be launched next week); and as far back in March, Johnson’s excitement about antibody tests “as simple as a pregnancy test” that could prove a “total gamechanger” but which soon proved to be a false dawn.

His government could yet face a reckoning from the public if that latest bit of optimism proves to be yet another case of over-promise, under-deliver.

Time and again, despite the seriousness of the crisis, Johnson has opted to hype up, rather than dampen, hopes and expectations of imminent salvation.

But with the U.K. now apparently at the beginning of a major second spike of infections and Johnson having suggested — characteristically — that “significant normality” might be restored by Christmas, his government could yet face a reckoning from the public if that latest bit of optimism proves to be yet another case of over-promise, under-deliver.

Yet more boosterism

“We have a group of people at the top of government who are brilliant campaigners,” said one former government special adviser. “I just wonder if there is a disconnection between the promises and what can, in all honesty, be delivered and I think the public is noticing that.”

To some extent, it’s the way the “boosterish” prime minister has always been; a politician who as mayor of London and as figurehead of the Brexit campaign had most success when inspiring optimism and making people feel confident about the future.

In fairness to Johnson, he and his ministers are under no illusions about the seriousness of the situation facing the U.K. heading into winter. Last week, social gatherings were legally restricted to a maximum of six people in a major tightening of rules to slow the rise in infections. Another worrying rise of 3,105 confirmed cases was reported Tuesday, and other new containment measures could be coming down the track within weeks, said one government official.

“The numbers are going in the wrong direction quite badly … probably at the worse end of what we were scoping for,” the official said.

Announcing the new “rule of six” last week, Johnson nonetheless could not resist the urge to play the optimist. He delivered the message alongside an upbeat explanation of the “moonshot” plan, which he said (continuing a pattern of positioning the U.K. as a potential world-beater) could deploy testing “on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved.”

The message was immediately tempered by Johnson’s own chief advisers, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, who said that there were “unknowns” surrounding the new testing technology and it would be “completely wrong to assume that this would be a slam dunk that can definitely happen.”

It was an example of how the inclination to optimistic rhetoric is not necessarily the considered position of the British government — it’s the instinct of the man at the top. “If you just left that stuff to the civil service they wouldn’t be saying anything like that,” said the government official of the “moonshot” rhetoric.

While the government has been obsessively polling public attitudes, there has been no finding in particular showing that the public desperately wants to hear optimistic messages, the official added. It just comes straight from Johnson. “It’s clearly the influence of the person who holds the reins at No. 10 and the PM’s general approach of sunlit uplands. It’s something which — to a degree — Matt Hancock and others are happy to go along with. I think that has genuinely influenced the messaging,” they said.

A sign in London advising the public on social distancing | Hollie Adams/Getty Images

The former special adviser agreed. “The boosterism comes direct from Boris,” they said.

‘Rally to the flag’ mood

Some see it as Johnson’s way of deflecting criticism and invoking a sense of national mission that served him well at the start of the crisis.

In the early days of the pandemic, like many leaders he enjoyed a huge boost, securing approval ratings of close to 70 percent. A second former adviser said that the prime minister’s response to criticisms from Labour leader Keir Starmer — who has increasingly focused on government competence amid the string of missed pledges — appeared aimed at keeping the “rally to the flag” mood alive, with the prime minister always emphasizing the efforts of health care workers and the individuals working for the ailing testing system.

The irony is that the government actually has a potentially good story to tell on testing, were it not for the impossibly high bar they have set themselves.

“He doesn’t address the issue of competence in his replies [to Starmer]. He basically has a ‘support the troops’-style response … a ‘wrap yourself in the NHS flag’-type approach,” the second former adviser said.

And while Starmer’s team sees the competence argument landing well (Labour is up in the polls and government approval is down), pollster Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll, said that the public’s views did not seem to have changed as a result of specific announcements or pledges “but much longer trends.”

“My sense is that things like (particularly) the antibody tests and (to a lesser extent) the app, are a bit too technical and too abstract for most people to pay close attention to. Instead, it was really only [Dominic] Cummings and Barnard Castle that had a noticeable impact,” Twyman said, referring to Johnson’s chief adviser’s breaches of lockdown rules — a story that cut through the political bubble and affected public perceptions.

“I think it was because that was a human story that many people could relate to. The only other thing I would add is that, at the height of the pandemic, support for both the government and their position was incredibly high. It was inevitably going to fall back,” Twyman said.

How far back, however, may depend on how the next few weeks go.

“It all comes back to testing,” said the second former adviser. “If the testing falls apart — and this week is looking quite challenging — then they’ve got a real problem … They’ve had six or seven months to get it up and running. You can start to see how the public might start asking why it isn’t working a lot better by now and the rhetoric will feel a long way from what people are actually experiencing.”

The irony is that the government actually has a potentially good story to tell on testing, were it not for the impossibly high bar they have set themselves.

“It is a really impressive achievement to go from a standing start in March to 250,000 tests a day by the middle of September,” said the first former adviser. “What I would like the government to say is that we’re going to try our best to continue in that vein, but we don’t have a magic wand … They just need to be a bit more realistic and straightforward with the public because the public knows that the world-beating system is not on its way.

“Far better to under-promise and over-deliver, than the opposite.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.

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