Brexiteers take note: we have seen the enemy, and it is us.

The strongest argument for Brexit, and the only one that appeared to have a shred of respectability, was the need to escape the suffocation of the Brussels bureaucracy. Now the UK’s management of the Covid19 epidemic has stripped that argument to a collapsing skeleton as we see one bureaucratic blunder follow another while the pandemic rages on.

Apart from the horrendous ‘herd immunity’ blunder by a single highly-placed but supposedly scientific nabob (who has recently disappeared from sight), at first it looked as if the Johnson government was going to surprise us all by mounting a coherent, science-led response to the outbreak. Now it is looking more and more incoherent and science-leaden. Everywhere, in every failed, half-hearted bumbling response we see the slow, cautious hand of the bureaucratic jobsworth, exposed nowhere more bleakly than in the tragic handling of testing.

Testing for the virus is actually pretty simple. The Germans had a reliable test up and running within days. You extract a strand of RNA, the cell’s reverse template of its DNA, use it to run a matching DNA strand, multiply that one to detectable levels and bingo you have your result. There are literally hundreds and probably thousands of machines in labs all over the country that can do this. So the bureaucrats at Public Health England put their heads together, kept them together for rather a long time, and decided that only one brand of one type of machine should be considered suitable, sending out requests for that machine and that one only. Oxford’s Dunn School of Pathology had 119 machines. Only one was of the approved type and that one only was requested. All testing was to be under the strict control of PHE, regardless of the fact that the capability to do it is sitting idle in labs all over the UK. Ah, but they might be unreliable … Caution, caution, caution. The old familiar watchwords and modus operandi of the bureaucrat are in firm control. Take no risks that you may have to answer for later. Do not trust anyone in private enterprise. Be wary of academics. (I think we can rely on an Oxford school of pathology to know what they’re doing, don’t you?)

Now we have taken weeks to even double the national testing capability to a woeful 10,000 per day, while even Trump’s supposedly hopeless administration has somehow managed to step theirs up to more than 20 times the number they started with. And where has that pitiful capability been deployed? To vast, empty drive-in facilities where NHS staff are turned away because either they ‘weren’t on the list’ or ‘didn’t have an appointment’.

Now that waste of oxygen Matt Hancock has declared, “I want industry and government to come together to build a UK diagnostic capability.”

That would have been just the ticket – in January, when the Germans did it. Now it is just another example of bureaucratic, monolithic thinking. It is far too late for that – just let those who can do it get on with it. They are out there by the dozen, champing at the bit. Some are already doing it, unsanctioned by PHE but gratefully received by the communities they serve. Systems Biology Laboratory, a philanthropic not-for-profit lab in Oxfordshire is one such example. Ah, but that is the pet project of a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Can’t have those sorts involved.

I could go on, and on, and on. If you have any doubt at all, listen to Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director of PHE, openly ignoring difficult questions and reeling out formulaic statements of “intention” at the daily 5pm briefings. The most disturbing feature of these sessions lately has been the evident equanimity of the officials in charge. Failing badly, conspicuously, people dying in consequence, they show neither ruffled feather nor beaded brow. Business as usual. “Didn’t do too badly, don’t you think?” “Oh, excellent. First class.”

This is exactly what Brexit was supposed to deliver us from. Well now we know. British bureaucracy is the match of anything Brussels could ever deliver. The last feeble shred of justification for Brexit has fallen victim to the virus.


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