If it wasn’t for me, says Matt Hancock, there wouldn’t even be 16,000 test results to lose

The missing 16,000 tests are, the health secretary assured us, just a ‘a small number of cogs that we have in the wheel’

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 05 October 2020 19:57
Only 51 per cent of missed coronavirus cases have been reached for contacts, reports Matt Hancock

Why can’t everyone see that, actually, Matt Hancock is just a victim of his own success?

Every week, every day, quite possibly every hour, he’s summoned to the despatch box of the House of Commons to atone for the latest coronavirus disaster for which he is ultimately responsible, and every time he gets a kicking all over again.

It’s just not fair. Take the latest example (by which I mean the one that happened at about 3.30pm on Monday. It’s possible, likely even, that there will be several more recent disasters by the time you’re reading this).

You might think that it is now abundantly clear that the only way to control the spread of Covid-19 is through widespread testing, the results of which can then be used to ease and tighten restrictions on social contact in the areas most and least affected. You might think this because it represents the government’s coronavirus strategy. And you might therefore think that 16,000 positive coronavirus test results going missing because the Excel spreadsheet that records them doesn’t have enough columns in it is a cock-up of unmitigated proportion. But that’s just not how it is.

Naturally, Matt Hancock was summoned to the despatch box of the House of Commons to atone for the latest coronavirus disaster, a sentence which, owing to the miracle of repetitive muscle memory, it now takes me somewhere in the region of 1.6 seconds to type.

It is, you might argue, something of a relief that no one is keeping an Excel spreadsheet of the number of coronavirus disasters Matt Hancock has been summoned to the despatch box of the House of Commons to atone for. They’d have run out of columns some time ago. Those of us who have to write columns on such subjects certainly did.

It was, it turns out, completely wrong to think that, just because the number of positive test results is the single most important bit of data in the fight against coronavirus, and by some margin the single biggest driver of actions taken by the government to prevent it, a mere 16,000 positive test results going missing for a full week is kind a big deal.

Why was everybody going on about it? Was it because the reason it had happened, namely that the Excel spreadsheet used to store the results turned out not to be large enough, is the sort of inconvenience for which charity quiz night hosts usually find a workaround, and yet it had, somehow, banjaxed the most important piece of public health delivery in this country in a hundred years?

Yes, it turned out, it was. Time and time again, MPs rose to ask the health secretary the same old weary question. How on earth had it happened? How had these 16,000 tests gone missing?

Mr Hancock had several variations on a theme of a non-answer, but rarely was it better expressed than to Labour’s Stella Creasy. “It is wrong to be picking on a small number of cogs that we have in the wheel,” he told her.

And why shouldn’t he? When has Matt Hancock ever made a big thing about tests, after all? It’s not like he very grandiosely set himself a target of 100,000 tests a day, then in even more grandiose fashion, announced he had met it by placing tens of thousands of tests in the post the day before the deadline.

Why would it matter to her, to him, or to anyone, that 16,000 or so not merely random ones but actual positive ones might fail to have been recorded? Why did everyone care so much that contact tracing had been delayed by more than a week on the few hundred thousand or so people these 16,000 other people might have met?

It’s a just a small cog in the wheel, all this. What’s 16,000 positive cases, really? I mean, you might say, well, it’s enough to lock down a whole city, but come on. Just give Matt Hancock a break.

Why was no one praising him for building a national testing program that’s too big for Microsoft Excel? The guy can’t win, can he? Six months ago, he was getting grief for having a testing regime you could conceivably track on a child’s abacus. Now it’s too big for a popular consumer desktop spreadsheet program and he’s still being given a hard time.

People need to make their minds up, don’t they? How many tests do you want? Not enough or too many? Just hurry up and decide will you, because there’ll be another horrendous cock-up to deal with tomorrow. Matt Hancock will be summoned to the despatch box of the House of Commons to atone for it, and it’d be nice to get this one over and done with first.

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