6 December 2022

The Government’s PPE critics are suffering a bout of collective amnesia


You remember it? You must remember it. Upset, exhausted nurses in bin bags and swimming goggles, frantic to protect themselves from Covid. Care home workers in washing up gloves and headscarves. A full three-klaxon emergency with MPs and union reps on every channel demanding instant action, all corners cut, screaming at ministers: ‘We need PPE. Do your jobs!’

Do you recall that there was a global shortage too? All over the world, governments scrambled to get their hands on anything that was going, and there were even stories of airport consignments being moved from one plane to another because a higher bid just came in from Washington or Berlin.

But maybe you’ve got it all wrong. The tone of recent reporting on the allegations against Tory peer Michelle Mone suggests a rather different picture, one in which ministers and civil servants were busy fixing up sweetheart deals with their dodgy business mates, probably over a long languid lock-down breaking lunch in some private club. Oh and all while wearing top hats and lighting cigars with smouldering £20 notes.

The great and the good (and, of course, that includes the Good Law Project) are on the rampage over the so-called scandal of PPE procurement, and it’s getting very nasty. Of course any allegations, including those against Baroness Mone, should be properly investigated – but doesn’t anyone today have even a drop of sympathy for those in government and the civil service at that time? Wasn’t it natural in such circumstances to suspend normal rules on compliance and due diligence to get the PPE to our shores as fast as humanly possible? As far as I can remember, that was exactly what we were all screaming for. In a time-pressured pandemic situation, doing things faster than usual was them doing their jobs.

And, as was obvious at the time, when you do rush things through the inevitable consequence is waste and, yes, people taking advantage to feather their own nest. But, ultimately, if it ended up with the country getting the PPE we so desperately needed, the ends surely justify the means. Equally, is a ‘VIP Lane’ actually a terrible idea in such a situation? It’s hardly surprising that politicians know businesspeople – of course they do. To my mind, it’s entirely natural and sensible for them to have used whatever means they could to source the scarce equipment we so urgently needed. Indeed, it’s exactly what we would expect them to do.

Of course, none of this excuses those who took advantage of the pandemic in order to make a quick buck at the public’s expense – and we should throw the book at them with gusto. But don’t forget the extraordinary pressure and time constraints that those in government were working under at the time – the kind of life-and-death pressure most of us will never experience.

Indeed, the coverage of this whole issue simply makes me wonder who would ever want to be a public servant of any kind in this atmosphere of hyper-partisan vindictiveness. CapX’s editor-in-chief Robert Colvile has written recently about why so many high-flying MPs are choosing to leave politics. Being exposed to such ferocious after-the-fact criticism for doing what the public demands of you must surely be one reason.

I have no doubt that government mistakes cost lives during the pandemic, including those of people close to me. The untested discharges to care homes, the delay to that first winter lockdown. But the way that some critics speak of these – those furious diatribes about ‘blood on your hands’ – leaves me absolutely cold. People were not killed by ministers, they were killed by Covid – and they were killed in equal or greater numbers in every comparable nation.

And for every life lost due to bad planning or administrative error, others were certainly saved by positive government actions. The ramping up of the testing programme from nothing and, especially, the vaccine task force. And it’s instructive to see that the people who today cry ‘blood on your hands’ the loudest at, say, Matt Hancock, are the exact same ones who levelled accusations of cronyism at a brilliant public servant, Kate Bingham, when she began her work on the Vaccine Taskforce – as her recent auto-biography makes shockingly clear.

Some public servants are inept and some are probably lazy. But I doubt if more than a handful have ever entered into that life trying to enrich themselves, especially at the expense of the sick. As Matthew Syed asked in The Sunday Times last weekend: ‘Is it not possible that they are put off by the rush to judgment, the lack of compassion in assessing their work… This will change only when a critical mass of the public is willing to offer the benefit of the doubt from time to time. It used to be something the British did quite well.’

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Phil Craig is a writer and TV producer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.