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Editorial Tuesday 16 March 2021: The Government's Covid19 blame game - pattern recognition and kitchen sink surrealism

'Kitchen sink realism' was the portmanteau term given to new British realist drama of the 1950s, launched with John Osborne's play 'Look Back In Anger' at the Royal Court.

These past few days' events have driven some pattern recognition about the Government's political strategy for addressing its poor handling of the Covid19 epidemic.

Two major news outlets that have been broadly friendly to the Government's line - the Telegraph and the Westminster politics team of BBC News - have both come out with articles revealing largely anonymous but authentic-looking accounts of the pandemic in Government from senior ministers.

The Telegraph has long been decreasingly a newspaper, and increasingly a Boris Johnson/Brexit fanzine.

Its political editor Gordon Rayner's output is larger, with this piece here, very obviously briefed by PM Boris Johnson and admitting that the delay to the first lockdown cost lives, while blaming scientists; and here, making it clear the PM wants the aim of any public inquiry "must be to learn the lessons that will prevent any repeat of Britain’s deadliest crisis since the Second World War, rather than apportioning blame".

What a surprise.

In this piece, Rayner relates that "the fact that the Government had to look to the private sector for leadership of not only its testing programme but also its vaccine programme, in the shape of venture capitalist Kate Bingham, is likely to turbocharge reform of the Civil Service that had already begun before the pandemic.

"It already seems clear that a future inquiry into the handling of coronavirus will see ministers trying to shift the blame to experts for giving the wrong advice, and experts pointing out that ministers are under no obligation to do what they suggest".

Mmmmmmm. If not mmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The PM is clearly not the only briefer at work.

A strong 'blame the scientists' thread running through these Rayner accounts quotes a source familiar with events saying "people like Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings were arguing against sporting fixtures being allowed, but others were arguing it would be a disaster economically for the racecourses, and it’s hard to win them round when the health experts are saying it will be fine".

Mmmmmm again.

Rayner has also been briefed that the role of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies will be reviewed, over fears it holds too much power.

Anyone remember the "following the science" era?

Contending the blame narrative
BBC News' chief political editor Laura Kuennsberg has been briefed by what seems to be a bigger number of Cabinet ministers and officials past and present for this piece.

In particular, when she reports that one senior minister said the government "should have locked down more severely in the autumn", one cannot but help hear these words being said in the dulcet tones of The People's Partridge himself, Health But Social Care Secretary Matt 'Alan' Hancock.

Kuennsberg also reveals that Boris Johnson "had been briefed by officials ahead of a press conference on 3 March 2020 - right at the start of the pandemic - to discourage people from shaking hands with each other. Instead, when he took to the lectern, the PM boasted he "shook hands with everybody" during a hospital visit".

Alan's grumpy appearance
Meanwhile, in a bad-tempered session of the Health Select Committee this morning, The People's Partridge inadvertently let a few cats out of the bag, in between his evasive semi-answers.

The row between the NHS Commissioning Board and HM Treasury over the NHS's Covid19 extra funding needs for 2021-22 remains unresolved, Alan revealed: great timing, as we are now less than three weeks out from the new financial year.

Alan likewise claimed that the Government's 1% pay offer is a real-terms rise, which was called out for the nonsense that it is by good old Shaun Lintern of The Independent.

Alan told the Committee, "Well, inflation is below 1%, and therefore a proposed 1% pay rise is indeed a pay rise, and that's simply a matter of fact". Ahem. Shaun notes, "except the estimate for CPI inflation for 2021-22 (the year the pay ris is in effect) is 1.5 to 1.8%".

Punchy assertions
Alan made some other punchy assertions, too.

The People's Partridge observed that "The full legal name of NHS England the NHS Commissioning Board – its actual legislative role was to commission  services, and not to lead the NHS. But under Sir Simon Stevens' leadership, it morphed into that: essentially NHS HQ. What this Bill entrenches - entrenches is the wrong word - it reforms the role of NHS England to become essentially a supportive transformational agency rather than quasi-regulator. I think that's a very important role and cultural change in NHS England, which I know Sir Simon is excited about."

The new reforms, Alan said, "will help us recover the waiting list". He also went on to claim that "these reforms are going to save money by reducing bureaucracy and increasing integration. The savings are baked into the Long Term Plan funding".

When asked, Alan said that he did not have “an exact figure” for those savings. Colour me surprised. These are claims to bookmark.

Alan's general grumpiness was notable: maybe The Guardian has fresh revelations on the way about his dealings with his mate, ex-pub-landlord-turned-crap-test-tube-manufacturer Alex Bourne? The paper has been spacing out their revelations quite effectively so far.

His wannabe-combative approach came over as Alan being camply petulant. The confused points over his suggestion of the SOS getting some role in the appointment of trust chairs and CEs was perhaps more confused than sinister.

Overall, surely one of Alan's jobs today was to be persuasive that the NHS needs "more Matt Hancock", so to speak. He failed with aplomb: possibly even with two plombs.

What's going on: not waving, but 'kitchen-sink'ing
What is going on here is interesting.

The Government is deliberately trying to 'kitchen-sink' the bad news about their mistakes and mis-steps - to 'kitchen-sink', in news media terms, is to throw a lot of bad news lout in one go, hoping that its impact will be slightly blunted by the sheer volume.

(This piece explains it quite well.)

The medium-term strategic thinking behind this 'kitchen-sinking' would suggest that if you put these things out into the Westminster bubble and broader public sphere, then their impact will be reduced by familiarity when the public inquiry eventually takes place.

It's a hypothesis, of course.

However, it's a very Westminster bubble-based hypothesis.

The broader revelations from ministers, advisors and officials that fed into these articles from both Rayner and Kuenssberg, however, is simply a reflection of the fact that all Governments (like all main political parties) are coalitions of interests.

The Covid19 Blame Game (about which I've written a lot in the HSJ column) is just going up another gear.

The ultimate judge of a Government is the electorate: in time, they will decide whether what's on offer here is kitchen sink realism, or surrealism.