Don’t blame the government for ordering 50 million unusable masks, we all know they’re an engineering nightmare

The next batch may work a little better, although I wouldn’t put it past them if it turned out the straps were all made of asbestos

Mark Steel
Thursday 06 August 2020 22:43
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PM: Face masks mandatory in cinemas, museums, and places of worship from next weekend

The government has again shown how hard it’s trying to keep everyone safe by buying 50 million masks for the NHS.

The British Safety Federation has spotted that none of them actually work, but it was a wonderful gesture. I hope the NHS unwrapped them and said: “Oh they’re lovely, and in my favourite colour” before burning them, as it would be rude to hurt the government’s feelings.

They needn’t all go to waste, because we can paint them black for Halloween, or sell them to bank robbers.

Apparently they might not fit right thanks to needing to be fastened around the ears, so you can’t blame the government, as it’s complicated when you have to deal with such complex engineering with so many moving parts.

Making sure the masks that you’re buying 50 million of actually fit properly must be like tuning a Formula 1 engine. Because there are so many different types of ear; triangular ones, revolving ones, some are coated with taramasalata which makes them slippy, aliens could land and they might have no ears at all or have massive ones in a shape never seen on earth before, that explode when they have a mask attached, so it’s an engineering nightmare.

This could explain why, for the first few months of this crisis, the government insisted there was no evidence masks prevented the spread of the virus. Matt Hancock probably said: “We’ve tried using broken masks that don’t go on anyone’s face and have to be thrown on the floor, and they didn’t make any difference. So they’re a waste of money.”

Maybe they tried again, with masks made from cabbage, or with some drawn on by children, or ones they bought from an S&M supplier but the zips were too tight so the nurses couldn’t hear each other, saying: “We keep trying but they’re all useless.”

But these 50 million unwearable masks may not be as pointless as they seem. Because they were bought as part of a £252m contract, with a company called Ayanda Capital. And it turns out one of the advisers to the government also advises the board of Ayanda.

It could be a marvellous way to keep the economy moving in these difficult times, provided we’re all allowed to advise the government to fork up some money. Local cafes that have only just been able to stay in business, for example, should be given the chance to advise the government that the safest way to protect NHS staff is to buy 70 million portions of egg and chips from their menu.

And even if the egg and chips turn out to contain no egg, and the chips are made of broken glass, never mind, because it means £252m has at least been handed out to someone, which should see them through to Christmas.

Ayanda Capital says the masks fit the demands made by the government, and the government says its procedures are “robust”. So that makes an interesting puzzle. The government asked for the right things, and the company provided exactly what they were asked to provide. But the things they provided are useless. I suppose it’s just one of those cracks in philosophy that can’t be helped, the sort of thing that happens in an especially confusing episode of Doctor Who.

There should be a national competition to guess what’s wrong with the next 50 million. Hancock might announce they’ve sorted out the problem with the straps, but it turns out they’re all made of asbestos, which passed the safety regulations where they were made in Uzbekistan but our safety standards are more pernickety.

Anyone can have a one-off disaster involving 50 million inadequate masks, but what is more difficult to explain is this follows several similar situations. There were the announcements that “game-changing” and “world-leading” track and trace technology would be absolutely, definitely ready, in the middle of May, then the end of May, then September.

And the system that has come in use, in cafes and pubs, is wonderfully sophisticated. The way it works, if you can follow this, is you’re given a piece of paper, on which you write your name if you can be bothered before it blows away in the street. I think it’s based on software designed by Steve Jobs.

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Perhaps the contract for track and trace was given to builders, so every few weeks they say to the government: “Hello mate, I know we said it would all be done by the end of May. But May’s been changed by the month authorities, it goes into November now, something to do with the moon, typical lunar red tape. Still, it’s going to look lovely when it’s done.”

Then there was the personal protective equipment for medical staff that didn’t arrive, so they had to use bin liners; the time they counted the same equipment twice to boost the numbers; And the prime minister announcing it was healthy to shake hands with people throbbing with the virus. If you were putting all this into a spreadsheet, you might start to sense some sort of pattern.

It should be fun when the vaccine arrives. There will be an announcement by Boris Johnson that “we can proudly declare, once again we lead the world in finding the cure, ipso facto, to defeat this virus. The first batch was indeed ready this morning and would be striding its way towards our hospitals were it not for the meddlesome British Safety Council, who discovered it was actually ginger beer. But worry not, the company has been paid so we can rest at ease, leading the world, over by Christmas, habeas corpus, Get Coronavirus Done.”

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