Coronavirus: Sunak and Doyle frank on PPE amid lockdown lift dilemma

Britain at big disadvantage due to early policy errors on testing and contact tracing

After a weekend of unwelcome revelations and hostile scrutiny of its record in dealing with coronavirus, Downing Street sent out chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak on Monday to reassure the public that the government had a grip on the crisis. Always better briefed and faster on his feet than other ministers, Sunak started by owning up to the difficulties healthcare workers are facing in securing personal protective equipment (PPE).

He acknowledged that a shipment from Turkey had run into problems but announced that some equipment had landed from Myanmar and said the government was doing its best to find new sources at home and abroad. Public Health England's Yvonne Doyle was also frank about new guidelines aimed at healthcare workers who faced PPE shortages. And in both cases, the apparent candour was more reassuring than the displays of evasion and stonewalling by other ministers and health officials.

Second peak

Questions about the government's decisions in the early weeks of the epidemic will not go away for long but, for now, the bigger debate is about how and when to start moving out of the lockdown. Downing Street successfully spun a line to political editors on Monday about Boris Johnson fearing that relaxing the restrictions too soon could lead to a second peak of infections.

In fact, nobody is proposing anything other than a careful, staged unwinding of restrictions similar to the plans being tested in other European countries. But the British government’s abandonment of community testing and contact tracing early in the epidemic has put the country at a disadvantage as it considers how to lift the lockdown.


Without widespread testing and tracing, Britain will be unable to monitor as effectively as other countries the impact of each step in lifting restrictions on the spread of the virus. And although the technology arm of the National Health Service is developing a contact tracing app, Britain has yet to put in place the personnel to conduct a contact tracing system.

Furlough scheme

Sunak’s announcement that 140,000 companies with more than one million employees between them had applied within a few hours on Monday to take advantage of the government’s furlough scheme highlighted the urgency of an exit strategy. Sunak welcomed the unexpectedly high take-up of the scheme, which will see the government pay 80 per cent of workers’ wages up to £2,500 a month, as a sign of its success.

It is also a reminder of the rising cost of a lockdown that can only end safely if Britain catches up with its European neighbours in following the advice from the World Health Organisation that senior British health officials dismissed last month as aimed at “low-and middle-income countries”.