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Whether test and trace was launched now due to the Cummings scandal or not – the rollout has been rushed

Ministers wrapping themselves in the health service flag as they promote NHS test and trace is recognition that trust in the government is falling

Andrew Grice
Thursday 28 May 2020 14:11 BST
How will the coronavirus test-and-trace system work?

Ever since the Dominic Cummings controversy erupted, Downing Street has desperately been trying to change the music so the public focus on something else.

In theory, it should have been easy; at a critical stage of the coronavirus pandemic response, the government is in the process of slowly easing the lockdown restrictions. So there are plenty of what spin doctors call “real world” stories to roll out.

However, the allegation that Cummings had broken the lockdown rules was so serious that normal diversionary tactics did not cut it. Indeed Durham Police have now said that the prime minister’s chief aide may have broken lockdown rules, but they will take no further action

When Boris Johnson made an unscheduled appearance at Sunday’s No 10 press conference, he confirmed plans to reopen schools from next Monday. But this was not enough fresh meat to satisfy a voracious media that rightly had its teeth in the Cummings story.

Today, however, the tide is finally turning. Team Boris will have breathed a huge sigh of relief at the newspaper front pages. True, some still focus on the Cummings affair. But the Tory-supporting papers did not put Cummings on page one. (The punch in the solar plexus for Johnson and Cummings was Monday’s Daily Mail headline: “What planet are they on?” ).

The test and trace scheme has proved a big enough “real world” story to change the media agenda. Contact tracing was due to launch next Monday, but was rushed forward to 9am today. Officially, the reason is to build confidence among parents and teachers ahead of the resumption of schools. But it probably also has something to do with No 10’s desperation to change the music.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, laughed off the idea on Sky News this morning. (He would, wouldn’t he?). A grinning Hancock told Kay Burley: “It’s priceless Kay – I’m normally accused of delaying these things, of bringing them in too slowly.”

There were signs of it being done on the hoof: GPs said they had not been briefed and learned the details only when they watched last night’s Downing Street press conference. Some NHS workers struggled to log into the computer system this morning.

Dido Harding, the Tory peer and former TalkTalk chief executive in charge of the programme, admitted the “world class” system promised by Johnson would not be in place on day one. “We will continue to test and learn over the next few days and weeks,” she said.

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, also said that UK was “weeks behind where we really ought to be”. He told the PA news agency that while there has been good progress, he understood a roll out of test and trace at the local level would not be ready until the end of June as we ”should have been doing quite a lot of these things months and weeks ago, and they weren’t being done”.

But Johnson will hope that test and trace, potentially affecting everyone in the country, will dominate the airwaves for a while as ministers explain the detail. He won’t mind a row about the “big ask” for people to self-isolate for 14 days even when they don’t have coronavirus symptoms. Any controversy is better than the Cummings one. Further measures to ease the lockdown, being discussed today by ministers and their scientific advisers, will also leave less media bandwidth for what Westminster journalists dub “non-Dom” stories.

Although the Tory pressure on Johnson to sack his closest adviser has eased, ministers rightly face awkward questions in media interviews as they explain “test and trace.” Inevitably, while asking the public to do their “civic duty,” they will be asked whether Cummings did his by taking his family to Durham. When they describe self-isolation as an “instruction”, they will be asked why Cummings did not obey a previous one.

The $64,000 question ministers struggle to answer is the one put to Johnson by the Tory MP Simon Hoare at yesterday’s Liaison Committee session: “So what do we say to our constituents, who are likely to say, ‘you can keep your lockdown if it has to come back. If other people don’t have to abide by it, why on earth should we?’”

Ministers hope the vast majority of people will still obey the test and trace rules. But it’s revealing that they wrap themselves in the NHS flag as they promote “NHS test and trace”, a recognition that trust in the government is falling. Whether they like it or not, both the launch of test and trace and the Cummings saga have undoubtedly contributed to that.

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