In conversation with RT Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Chair of Commons Health Select Committee, and former Foreign Secretary and Health Secretary

In conversation with RT Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Chair of Commons Health Select Committee, and former Foreign Secretary and Health Secretary

11.09.20

Tulchan Frameworks, hosted by James Harding, Co-founder and Editor, Tortoise Media, in conversation with Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Chair of Commons Health Select Committee, and former Foreign Secretary and Health Secretary.

On the day that ministers announced £500m for on-the-spot, regular ‘spit tests’ for the virus, and the Office for National Statistics disclosed that 57,300 deaths involving Covid-19 had been registered in the UK, the conversation ranged from the lessons to date of the government’s management of the pandemic to the prospects for a way out of the epidemiological quagmire.

Lessons of Cygnus

Much has been said and written about Exercise Cygnus, the full-blown operational trial in 2016 for a national pandemic which was judged of the highest quality by (for instance) Johns Hopkins University. The catch was that Cygnus assumed a flu outbreak - rather than a variant of SARS, as Covid-19 proved to be. This reflected groupthink in Western countries (hitherto unaffected by SARS variants) that reflexively equated pandemics with forms of influenza. Now, of course, our horizons have been expanded by hard experience.

The unexpected asymptomatic

It is increasingly clear that as many as 70 per cent of those who are infected do not develop symptoms. Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, estimates that 40 per cent of all health workers at University College London Hospitals contracted the virus during the peak months. This is good news in the sense that the fatality rate is clearly much lower than was initially feared. However, it makes a water-tight testing regime all the more important - as so many infectious people are not visibly unwell.

Testing

If there is to be anything close to a return to regular office life and schools are to stay open, it is essential that an accessible, routinised form of testing becomes available as a matter of urgency. Those engaged in health, teaching and public transport work need the confidence of regular testing - which is why the government’s pilot scheme of fast-result ‘spit tests’ is an important venture upon which much depends.

Public Health England

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with its replacement by the National Institute for Health Protection - as long as (a) PHE’s preventive health mission does not fall between the slats and (b) PHE does not become a scapegoat for errors made by politicians.

Messaging

The government needs to do more to restore cross-party cooperation on the key aspects of its public health policy. To be fair, Boris Johnson has been punctilious in observing protocol and courtesy in dealing with the devolved governments.

The Economic way forward

Much of the kite-flying in the media in recent days about potentially swingeing tax increases should be treated with great scepticism. This is not a government minded to deter inward investment or to make post-Brexit Britain inhospitable to business. The essence of future economic policy must be growth, not tax hikes - in particular, the creation of a UK counterpart to Silicon Valley.