No 10 has promised “maximum transparency” on its coronavirus response in the coming days. Here are just some of the areas where the government is under pressure to provide detailed answers – or risk being accused of a whitewash.
There are huge questions about the secrecy surrounding the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the crucial body advising Boris Johnson on the UK’s coronavirus response. MPs, academics and medical professionals want a detailed list of who sits on it, their disciplines, minutes of its twice weekly meetings and, most importantly, more documents showing the basis on which they are making decisions about the lockdown.
Five weeks ago, the government published a tranche of scientific papers showing the possible effects of the virus and social distancing measures. But nothing more has been forthcoming on the impact of the lockdown. The Guardian’s publication last week of a list of many attendees, including the prime minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings, fuelled calls for transparency. Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, has now promised that a membership list of participants would be published with their permission and the government also says it is planning to release more scientific papers in the coming days.
Lockdown exit strategy
Politicians from Tory grandees to opposition leaders are growing impatient with the government’s refusal to set out an exit strategy. In particular, they have been pressing for information on the economic impact of the measures so far, what this means for wider public health, rising domestic abuse, child abuse, children’s educational outcomes and other potential negative consequences.
There was hope that the prime minister’s return to Downing Street might mean a roadmap out of the lockdown is published this week, but No 10 suggests this is unlikely to happen until just before the review date of 7 May. Many ideas have been floated in the press on opening the economy – from friends and family bubbles and socially distanced schools to which sectors may be allowed to return to work first.
However, No 10 is remaining officially tight-lipped about the options, insisting that the public supports a lockdown until the spread is suppressed and the risk of a second peak is reduced. Boris Johnson may, however, release some information about the current status of the spread of the virus and how much further the UK has to go before easing restrictions after a cabinet meeting on Thursday.
Death and infection numbers
It is still unclear how many people are dying of coronavirus, the exact age profile and the locations of hotspots. The main criticism is that the daily death toll from coronavirus published by the Department of Health and Social Care only includes hospital deaths and wide age brackets, after a 29-hour time lag.
The Office for National Statistics is now regularly releasing details for overall excess mortality with a few days’ time lag, which gives a wider picture of deaths in the community, both directly and indirectly related to the coronavirus crisis. However, there are still no real-time figures for deaths in specific settings from confirmed or likely coronavirus, such as care homes and households. This is set to change, after Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said daily deaths in care homes and the community would be published each day from Wednesday.
There is also an incomplete picture of infection numbers because of the patchy situation with testing, with no widespread community monitoring. Some reports suggest there are still 350,000 infected people in the community but that is not an officially published figure.
Ministers have been repeating huge figures for distribution of PPE, saying a billion pieces have been sent out since the crisis began across tens of thousands of sites. But the BBC’s Panorama accused the government of fiddling the numbers by counting each glove as an item, rather than pairs of gloves, and including paper towels and cleaning equipment, which are not protective clothing.
Furthermore, No 10 has not come up with “burn rate” figures –how much PPE is needed and being used each day – so the huge numbers for items distributed have no context. Labour has repeatedly pointed to the “mismatch” between ministers claiming there are no shortages and the situation on the ground, where medics complain of having to manufacture makeshift protection, reuse items or go without.
Ministers have been providing daily figures for testing capacity, actual tests, and people on whom tests have been performed. But they have failed to breakdown the types of people tested, including how many patients, care residents, hospital workers, care workers and other key workers are being tested and where in the country. Critics have asked for more information on why the number of tests being carried out do not match the capacity for testing, with many people unable or unwilling to travel for miles when unwell to drive-through testing centres.
There is also ambiguity around the millions of antibody tests bought by the government, with a lack of clarity about how many different types are being tested, how much they cost, where they come from and how accurate they have proved so far. Ministers have been considering ordering a large batch from British developers of a test but there have been conflicting reports about whether they are reliable enough for home use.
The now-notorious Exercise Cygnus was a pandemic preparation project carried out four years ago, which showed the the UK was woefully underprepared for a global outbreak of a new virus. Whistleblowers revealed a huge number of shortcomings were identified including low stockpiles of PPE, not enough ventilators, and inadequate hospital capacity. However, ministers are refusing to declassify and publish the report, with Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, claiming on Sunday that he could not remember whether he had seen it or not. Hancock insisted on Tuesday that he had received assurances from officials that “everything appropriate to do was done” following the report’s recommendations but there is still no commitment to see it published.
The cabinet received advice last week from its scientists on Sage about whether it is effective for people to wear face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus but it is refusing to share the information or make recommendations as a result of the advice. The Scottish government advised on Tuesday that people should wear face masks in shops and on public transport. Questions are being asked about why No 10 is refusing to come to a decision when every day could be crucial in terms of stopping the further spread of the virus.