The government is always one step behind on coronavirus

Where's the detail and the urgency?

Schools are finally being closed – sort of. Some pupils will be going to school such as key workers in the health sector, emergency services and supermarket delivery drivers, along with vulnerable kids who have social workers.

So what about the children of teachers? After all, we need them around for the partially opened schools. What about delivery drivers for corner shops, or pet stores? Schools will be bombarded with requests from parents in the next 48 hours, so where is the detailed guidance? The same with the vouchers for free school meals. It’s a good idea, but the detail is to follow.

As the editor of the Lancet medical journal said: “We have wasted 7 weeks. This crisis was entirely preventable.” Because of the government’s failed strategy they are constantly behind.

Take last Thursday’s COBRA meeting where they decided not to ban mass gatherings. The following day it was the Football Association and other major sporting bodies that decided to follow World Health Organisation guidelines by cancelling matches and events rather than wait for government guidance.

We should all be grateful that they did. When the Imperial College model spoke of a quarter of a million deaths if we didn’t quickly clamp down, lots of organisations had already acted ahead of the government to apply the brakes.

The failure of the government to have protective clothing available for NHS staff is a scandal. So is the lack of testing. Other countries showed what you needed to do, well before the cases in this country started to escalate, so where was the public health planning?

No tests available for medical staff has meant a lot of them leaving the front line to self-isolate but with no idea if they have actually got it or not? The same goes for lots of people who can’t work from home and are uncertain if their kids have got it, or they have got it. Some act cautiously and stop work, others take the risk and may be spreading the disease. Elderly relatives are left isolated because of the uncertainties.

Meanwhile in Italy they have tested an entire town of 3,000 people, just to be sure none of them have it. In the UK our Prime Minister boasts that soon we may get 25,000 a day for a country of 64 million people.

We have seen the same belated action on economic policy as well. The Prime Minister asks people to stay away from bars and theatres one day, but it takes a day of anxiety and shouting on social media before the chancellor announces a package of measures to help those businesses. Why wasn’t this thought through in advance?

This disease is exposing all the fragilities of economic life as companies cut off the pay cheques of those in the gig economy, or the outsourced world of the self-employed. Our country needs to adapt and innovate quickly if we are to limit the pain over the next year.

That means a Universal Basic Income scheme and numerous other economic measures that will guarantee that people don’t starve, or get evicted in the coming months. Government has to learn to act fast.

Londoners are packing onto the tube or trains every day or facing emergency restrictions on which line, or tube station they can use, while in Taiwan their counter-parts are having their temperatures taken as they go through the turnstiles. Anyone with a mild fever in Taiwan is stopped from getting into a carriage with dozens of other people, why haven’t we done that here?

The reality is that the UK is not as good as it likes to think at public health. I know this from two decades of frustrated campaigning on air pollution where the complacency of civil servants and ministers has led to hundreds of thousands suffering premature deaths.

We have failed to deal with that health emergency and we have been constantly behind the curve on this one. It is time for a government of national unity to take charge and steer us through the next year of dealing with this crisis.

Jenny Jones is a Green Party peer in the House of Lords and a former London Assembly member.

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