STEPHEN GLOVER: If only our ministers could admit to mistakes and say they ARE sorry
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Politicians don’t like saying sorry — unless on behalf of long-dead predecessors who can be made to carry the can from beyond the grave. Tony Blair was a past master at that.
Apologising for present mistakes goes against the grain. Ministers fear it looks weak. They dread their opponents making political capital out of any show of contrition.
But there comes a moment when the capacity to reach out and communicate with fellow human beings trumps political calculation. On Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was offered two opportunities to express his regret and accept some responsibility. He flunked them both.
First he was asked by Dr Abdul Chowdhury’s 18-year-old son Intisar to apologise for his father’s recent death from the coronavirus, which he reasonably attributes to a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Before his death, Dr Chowdhury had written to Boris Johnson urging him to supply adequate PPE. Mr Hancock told Intisar that he was ‘really sorry’, but couldn’t bring himself to admit fault.
The Health Secretary was later pressed by a reporter to apologise for the catastrophe unfolding in care homes. The journalist wanted to know why testing had not started sooner in these places, and why visitors weren’t told to stay away from them until as late as March 16.
Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives at Downing Street for a meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on April 29
Here was a chance to go beyond a robotic expression of sadness whenever he or other ministers recite the latest fatality figures. The neglected deaths of thousands of older people in these homes — alone, confused, often unattended by doctors and separated from those they love — is an unspeakable tragedy.
However, what Mr Hancock did was to claim that testing had taken place in care homes at an early stage (maybe, but only on a tiny scale) and to say that the authorities had taken the view that ‘having visitors’ was a bulwark against ‘loneliness’ and a boon for ‘longevity and mental health’.
Well, I think that most of us, offered a choice between being denied the company of virus-carrying visitors for a couple of weeks and dying, would very likely choose the former.
Why is he even more reluctant to apologise than your averagely self-righteous politician? I suppose he is terrified of having the failures of testing, shortages of PPE and the calamity of care homes pinned exclusively on him, so that his once-promising ministerial career comes to a juddering halt.
I also expect that, like other ministers, he has been instructed by Government lawyers not to admit to any error in case doing so should open him up to legal action by complainants, as well as censure from the official inquiry that will one day take place.
His conduct may make political sense. But isn’t he a caring human being? Can’t he also see that people would forgive his mistakes in a terrifically challenging job if they were afforded evidence that he has a heart?
Dr Abdul Chowdhury, pictured, had written to Boris Johnson urging him to supply adequate PPE before his death earlier in the month
I don’t want to pick on Matt Hancock, who I’m sure is a capable minister and a decent person. Other ministers less obviously in the frontline are also loath to take responsibility for cock-ups. The Government has hardly donned sackcloth and ashes.
There have, let’s face it, been all kinds of errors across the board, which is not perhaps very surprising given that Covid-19 is a new disease, and that inexperienced senior ministers, having been preoccupied with Brexit, were unprepared for this ordeal.
I certainly don’t think we want a Government forever beating its breast and wailing about its inadequacies. That would be demoralising. But wouldn’t it be reassuring if ministers betrayed more awareness that they have made mistakes?
Two weeks ago, President Emmanuel Macron apologised on French television for his government’s failures in tackling the crisis. There have been as many criticisms in France about PPE shortages as in this country.
At least Mr Macron, who is about as far from being a shrinking violet as is possible for a politician, acknowledged that not everything had gone swimmingly. No senior minister has dared do that here.
The inability to apologise doesn’t simply imply a lack of human feeling. Without contrition there is unlikely to be awareness of error, and without an awareness of error there won’t be change.
Let me suggest two seemingly ineradicable shortcomings which dog the Government, and remain unaddressed because ministers are unwilling to admit that they exist.
The first is the lumbering nature of the Department of Health, Public Health England and the NHS. These vast bureaucracies are staffed by executives and managers who are unused to rapid decision-making, often prone to watching their backs, and unschooled in the disciplines of the private sector.
Medical Director at Public Health England Professor Yvonne Doyle, left, pictured with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab during a media briefing in Downing Street giving the government’s daily coronavirus press conference, April 29
How one galvanises such naturally unadventurous bodies is admittedly far from clear. Look at the testing fiasco. In a way, one sympathises with Mr Hancock. But he could have made it easier for himself if he had imported a dynamic figure to knock heads together and get things done.
The second failing is ministers’ tendency — Boris Johnson is as guilty as anyone — to defer to the godlike qualities of scientists, by whose advice they undertake always to be guided.
Isn’t it clear that Public Health England and the mysterious advisory outfit called Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) have at times offered some pretty questionable counsel?
Experts advised against closing the borders to flights from China and other virus hotspots, citing Italy and the United States, which banned flights to no apparent effect. But Australia and New Zealand — perhaps the most successful countries in suppressing the contagion — were admirably quick to put up the shutters.
In early March, we were told by experts that closing schools would offer only a marginal benefit. Then they were closed. If the advantage was so small, why can’t they now be opened?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson returns to Downing Street from the hospital after the birth of his son with partner Carrie Symonds, April 29
Churchill’s oft-quoted maxim about scientists was that they should be ‘on tap, not on top’. Of course we need them, but politicians shouldn’t hide behind them. A tap can be turned off.
The latest idiocy concerns masks. In most countries they are encouraged. Their usefulness is endlessly debated but it is surely obvious that anyone standing on the Tube next to someone with the coronavirus would want that person to be wearing a mask.
If the reason the Government is havering is that it knows there aren’t enough masks to go around, it should be honest and say so. Admit that masks are beneficial, and we can make our own until the authorities come up with better ones.
More common sense and greater decisiveness on the part of our politicians is the order of the day, and less hiding behind the advice of scientists, who not infrequently disagree.
It all comes back to acknowledging error. If the Government could only admit it has made mistakes — and occasionally apologise — it would have a better chance of putting things right.
As for Matt Hancock, should he fail to meet his self-imposed target of 100,000 daily tests by tonight, he must say sorry — which would be a first. No fiddling the figures, please.
But it works both ways. If he does achieve his challenging goal, I shall be the first to take my hat off. All of us should be delighted whenever the Government does better.
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