I published this on The Article on 16 April:
The Commission of Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks in the United States said when it reported that the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management. There will be a Public Inquiry into the conduct of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, and it will be harsh in all four areas.
In every area of social life what seemed unthinkable has now happened. So, first, imagination. This, said the 9/11 Commission, ‘is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.’ The exercise of imagination needed to become routine. We know that pandemics featured as a high priority in the National Risk Register and there had been a pandemic planning exercise in 2016. But lessons weren’t learned. And it is likely that the government’s imaginative and cognitive bandwidth had been stretched by its Brexit planning and election fighting by early 2020 and that crucial decisions were delayed, in part because the necessary processing of the unthinkable did not take place early enough.
Policy. Policy changed alarmingly quickly with an about-turn in mid-March, even though many experts have said that the signs were obvious by February. As Professor Colin Talbot has pointed out, early in March, mass gatherings were ok. Then, but only after the Cheltenham races and the Stereophonics concerts and the Liverpool/Athletico Madrid game, they weren’t. School closures weren’t necessary, then they were. PPE wasn’t essential, then it was. Mask-wearing wasn’t necessary, now maybe it is. In the last week, leaks suggested that the Home Office still believes that 80% of UK citizens will get the virus. On March 16, the chief medical officer said all those who were vulnerable – those who were advised to have the annual flu vaccination – would be asked to shield themselves. Then, after it dawned that this meant 19 million people, a revised version of this for the ‘extremely vulnerable’ – 1.5 million people – became the emphasis. Except that care homes, already housing thousands of the extremely vulnerable, were forgotten.
Capabilities. One of the successes of the crisis has been military logistics – the building of the Nightingale hospital in London, the Dragon’s Heart hospital in Cardiff’s international rugby stadium, and many others. The transformation of operational focus in the health services in the four nations has debunked criticism of the dexterity of the NHS. The development of the furlough and business financial packages are successes of government adaptability. There has been one important communications success – the clarity of the core message of Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. But there are long-term issues which have demonstrated our over-reliance on global supply chains in respect of testing, PPE equipment and ventilator manufacture. Ventilator developments have been stop-start, with some schemes initially announced with great fanfares subsequently dropped.
Management. Implementation is always the forgotten end of policy. Unfortunately, over-promising and under-delivering has been the norm. Press conferences are full of mixed messages and uncertainty. Targets announced by ministers for testing and ventilator production have come and gone. There is silence about the work-streams the government is managing to deliver progress in different areas. The comprehensive financial package announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, one of those who actually sounds like a grown-up when he is holding a press conference, needs detailed clarification on its longevity and the money needs to be released sooner. Payment of Universal Credit was already taking too long and now there are millions more claimants. Some universities are on the brink of insolvency with no obvious rescue in sight.
Looking ahead now instead of looking back, it is obvious that as other European countries start to unlock their lockdowns that comparisons will be drawn and questions will be asked here. In Denmark, the equivalent of primary schools are going back. In Spain some businesses are re-opening. This week President Macron gave some examples of a phased re-opening when extending the French lockdown to 11 May. But the UK strategy for relaxing the lockdown is opaque. It’s not clear that one exists. As Keir Starmer has said, public trust will depend on transparency and openness. No-one is asking for a detailed timetable, but the strategy should give some indication of the factors that will determine how a lockdown should be relaxed, such as mass testing and contact tracing, as well as an indication of what happens if, as expected, there are future waves of the virus. Greater effort needs to be made to integrate the thinking of the devolved administrations, who will make the decisions on school re-opening, for example, with that of the UK Government.
Underpinning this, of course, is the sense of a vacuum in political leadership. For very human reasons, the Prime Minister is beyond criticism at the present time. He is politically untouchable. But the proper sympathy extended to him for his recovery cannot be an excuse for dither at the centre of government. Key decisions will have to be made. Clarity will be needed in all statements about future strategy. A sense of hope for the coming reconstruction period is crucial.