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Corona Diaries: so is the minister a liar?

April 1, 2020

Michael Gove went on television yesterday and said that a lack of chemical reagent is holding up the UK’s coronavirus testing programme. According to the chemical producers’ industry body, there is no shortage of reagent. They claim that the government has never asked them for more supplies. The story comes from Robert Peston, ITV’s chief political editor.

This is what Rachel Clarke, a prominent NHS doctor, had to say on Twitter about Peston’s report:

Tonight @MichaelGove told the public our inadequate #COVID19 testing is due to a lack of chemical reagents. The UK Chemical Industries Association says there’s no shortage at all. Nor has @10DowningStreet even asked manufacturers to increase production. This is indefensible.

Small wonder that a large number of people in the UK quite possibly believe that Michael Gove is a liar.

Michael Gove may be a liar. We are all liars to one extent or another. Liars to ourselves if not to others. But wait. There is another possibility. That he and his colleagues are desperate, fearful and, crucially, credulous.

I very much doubt that a few weeks ago Gove knew any more about the chemistry of testing for virus infection than 99.99% of the population. He probably doesn’t know much more now. After all, it was he who told us during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign that “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

Cheap shot, I know – I couldn’t resist it. But today he, like his colleagues who routinely pop up to the No 10 podium to pronounce on the crisis, is reliant on briefings from those who know what they’re talking about.

So now, imagine a meeting – of COBRA, Ministry of Health. Downing Street advisors, whatever – in which the politicians – Gove, Johnson, Hancock, whoever – assemble their team and say “right guys, we’re in deep shit unless we can come up with a reasonable explanation for why we’re behind on testing. Ideas please….”.

Advisors, who have been working 18-hour days for weeks, scuttle off and break into huddles. Some bright spark comes up with the idea that a contributing factor is a shortage of reagents. Not necessarily because the reagents aren’t available, but because within the layers of bureaucracy, something has caused the supply chain to break down. Maybe a key person – a vital human link in the chain – has caught the virus and is out of communication. Someone less knowledgeable is standing in for them.

Amidst the panic, speculation from the stand-in mutates into information, which passes up the chain of command to the bright spark at No 10. The ministerial meeting resumes, and the hard-pressed advisors, fearing for their jobs if they don’t come up with something, provide a list of possible contributing factors, of which the reagent theory is one. “I like that”, says the minister, “let’s go with the reagent shortage”.

So in the space of a few hours, amid a febrile environment in which new political meteorites are constantly streaking towards the decision makers, a theory mutates into a fact, at least in the mind of the politician, who doesn’t want to hear the caveats about lack of verification. He wants a bloody answer. Now. Because nothing at this more precise moment is more important to him than the daily update he will deliver at 5pm. The last thing he wants is to appear an idiot.

And yes, maybe what he tells us will turn out to be a lie. But not necessarily a cold, deliberate untruth. Because he’s sitting at the top of an anthill threatened with scalding water that sends the workers scurrying around trying to figure out how to save the colony. Or, to put it another way, he has to be the swan sailing serenely against the current of a river while beneath him his feet are paddling furiously.

The scenario I’ve described may be totally wrong. But my experience tells me that lies uttered by leaders often come about not through cold calculation, Goebbels-style, but in the heat of the moment, driven by fear and desperation.

When I heard the Gove story, I tweeted “Why would you lie when you know you will be found out? Only kids do that, don’t they?” I was wrong. Kids don’t necessarily know they will be found out. They don’t even consider the possibility. If they find themselves in a corner, they’ll say anything to wriggle out of trouble, regardless of the consequences. And so, under certain circumstances, do the rest of us.

And that, I suspect, is the story.

From → Politics, UK

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