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Tony Blair on how the government should exit lockdown

Former prime minister Tony Blair appeared on Good Morning Britain to explain what he thinks the government should do to exit lockdown.

Mr Blair oversaw the country's response to the foot and mouth disease in 2001 when he was in office and he says mass testing has to be at the heart of the government's response to the crisis.

In addition, Mr Blair urged the government to bring in senior business leaders who deal with supply line and production issues on a daily basis to solve the the problems with ramping up coronavirus tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) production.

Mr Blair added that there needs to be a serious decision-making process in place while Boris Johnson recovers from coronavirus.

"You've got to reposition government completely," Mr Blair said.

"I think that part of the problem is that many of the skills you need to deal with something like this, around things like production of equipment and how you source different elements of the equipment that you need, at the heart of this has got to be mass testing."

“And you should divide up the different key elements, and have senior ministers in charge of each element divided up in that way with good outside people, people who have got the skill set who won’t be amongst politicians, or people in government or the bureaucracy and get to the point where you are dealing with all the different dimensions and not getting overwhelmed.”

He added he was speaking with “humility” knowing how difficult it was in government and making such decisions.

He went on: “I’m sure everyone is working flat out, by the way. It’s really just a question of whether we are positioned rightly to measure up to the scale of this problem and the need for action and decision making at speed.”

On the army becoming more involved, he continued: “It was a much more minor crisis. But when I was dealing with the foot and mouth disease outbreak, it was only when we brought in the skill set of the military that we were able to accelerate our ability to deal with it.

“In normal government, as you know Piers, you have your education department, your health department, your industry department, your defence department. This is just a government with one challenge and so I don’t think you can leave the system operating as the normal system and that’s really the point I’m making.

“When you come to the exit from the lockdown, this phase of the suppression of the disease – which is absolutely right and necessary, that in my view is actually probably a simpler task than how you exit from the lockdown. How you exit is really, really complicated and unless you have the right skill set there at the centre of government right from the very beginning then it’s going to be very hard to do things like mass testing, which I can’t see any other way out of this. The worry I have is that every week that passes…”

Speaking about his experience of the foot and mouth health crisis, he said: “What I learnt, and to be frank with it, for the first weeks of it we were behind the curve. What I learnt is you have to just set aside all the normal rules of bureaucracy and reposition the government differently and that’s one of the reasons I’m saying what I’m saying now.”

He spoke about bringing in the army and looking at the problem in the different way, putting people in charge of different aspects to focus on different specific tasks.

Asked if he attended COBRA during this time, he replied: “We were flat out on COBRA.”

When pressed about the meetings, he added: “To be really blunt I can’t remember. It’s not completely unknown for prime ministers not to attend COBRA. But, I mean the point really is COBRA or not COBRA, the whole of government has to be concentrated on this.”

The former Prime Minister added: “What you learn about these situations is the system does react and decisions that were taking two months are brought down to two weeks, but the problem with something like this is those decisions have to be two days and sometimes two hours. That’s the thing that troubles me… I say this in the spirit of constructive criticism, but all of us know people who are serious people with capabilities to offer who have been trying to fight their way into the system to offer them. We are not yet organised in the right way for the scale of this thing so that every single possible avenue is being explored, every single potential lead that gives you a handle on the disease.”

Talking about a possible vaccine, he said: “This vaccine could be a long way away. My institute was very active in the Ebola crisis, it took us five years to get a vaccine for Ebola.” He said the signs were promising but that you couldn’t be sure when the vaccine would be available and that the testing had to done with a lot of care.

On mass testing and PPE, he responded: “For the first thing on the protective equipment… I’m not an expert on this but there are people who do this stuff for a living… who run production lines and supply lines, you need that capacity within government… You are going to need vast amounts of this protective equipment and clothing.”

He continued: “It’s true there is a big debate about the accuracy of these tests… the problem with the antibody test is not to do with the quality of the test per se it’s to do with the time in the pathway of the individual's disease that you do the testing.”

He added in the first week of someone having the disease an antibody test can be inaccurate but after 12 days or two weeks, in his view, they are “almost always accurate”.

“It’s not that the antibody test is not an accurate test, it’s just when you, in the course of the disease, you give that test… Even if there is some inaccuracy I still think the antibody test is a vital part of what we are trying to do,” he concluded.

Blair cautioned that senior business leaders should be brought in now to look at ways of securing the tests for when the country does need them.

“It’s not that the people in government are not doing their best... they are working every hour that God sends right now, but unless you get the right set of skills into this you will find you are always behind the curve and we can’t afford in this exit period to be behind the curve because the economic and health consequences of this lockdown are so huge,” he explained.

He added that scientific advice could tell you the facts around antibody testing but ”your political judgement in the end, is given those facts is it still worth having this and doing it at scale and what do we need in order to do that? Do we need for example, to have a large scale community volunteer force who are able to implement a mass testing proposal?”

He concluded: “The decisions that have to be taken at the moment are probably more political than they are scientific actually.”

On Boris Johnson’s ill health, he went on: “Obviously Boris has got to get better and he’s been seriously ill. He’s going to be in a position where of course for major decisions he will be consulted and will give a steer, I’ve got no doubt. But in a situation where every day matters… I think the person who is the Acting Prime Minister, along with what is essentially the war cabinet, who are the top four ministers who are meeting together… that person has got to be taking those decisions. Because you can’t have a void of decision making.”

He summed up saying: “These decisions around how government organises itself, what are the issues we need to be preparing for now to exit from this lockdown around things like schools, geographic sectors, age sectors, those have to be taken now.”

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