Opinion: Ministerial errors have undermined the UK’s pandemic response

By on 29/01/2021
There is little evidence that the prime minister and those around him understand the scale of their failures or their culpability for what has unfolded, Vize argues. Credit: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street/Flickr

The latest Whitehall Monitor report reveals just how badly ministers have handled the COVID-19 crisis, failing in key areas such as procurement and working with local authorities, argues Richard Vize

The annual analysis of Whitehall by think tank the Institute for Government reveals how the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been repeatedly undermined by avoidable ministerial failures.

Whitehall Monitor – now in its eighth edition – gathers and analyses a huge array of data on all aspects of government performance, such as spending, staffing and ministerial activity. Its findings – in areas such as procurement, working with devolved and local governments, and public communications – lay bare just how poorly ministers have handled the pandemic.

The numbers bring home the enormity of the policy and operational challenges faced by ministers and civil servants. Government spending hit £1 trillion (US$1.3tn) in 2020/21 for the first time, according to the research – an increase more than £200 billion (US$275bn) on the previous year. This includes £147 billion (US$201bn) supporting households and businesses, alongside £22 billion (US$30bn) on a test and trace system which, according to the government’s own scientific advisers, has only had a “marginal impact” on reducing transmission of the virus.

Procurement

The bill for personal protective equipment (PPE) illustrates how ministers jettisoned standard procedures for handling public money. The total for PPE has reached £15 billion (US$20bn), according to the Monitor. The National Audit Office (NAO) found that between February and July 2020, £12.5 billion (US$17bn) was spent on PPE; if the same volume of PPE had been bought in 2019 it would have cost just £2.5 billion (US$3bn). While this increase is in part due to global demand far outstripping supply, there is ample evidence that ministers did not secure value for money for PPE and other contracts.

Just 1% of the £17 billion of government contracts related to COVID-19 were awarded through competitive tender, according to the IfG. Around 38% were awarded through existing framework agreements, leaving 61% to be awarded directly to contractors without competition.

As the IfG points out, awarding contracts directly was the right response as the crisis broke, but there is little evidence of a return to competitive bidding later in the pandemic. The failure to secure value for money second time around is much less excusable and is compounded by other findings such as the NAO’s investigation into COVID-related procurement. This uncovered failures to document why suppliers were chosen or highlight conflicts of interest, such as connections to a minister. The disregard of the basic rules of probity reeks of cronyism.

Devolution

The report highlights the government’s poor coordination with the devolved administrations – particularly Scotland and Wales. While all sides will inevitably try to score political points, the research notes, ministers did not mobilise the usual mechanisms for discussions between the leaders of the UK and the devolved governments which could have improved the chances of coordinating responses.

The failure of ministers to do everything to join up the actions and messaging left Boris Johnson looking at times as if he was pleading with the leaders of foreign powers. The IfG report points out, “The pandemic was the first time many people in England realised the extent of the powers given to the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.” It is no surprise to see increasing calls for Scottish independence.

But if the government’s lack of coordination with devolved governments was problematic, its refusal to fully involve local government was potentially lethal. The IfG outlines how local government was marginalised during this crisis, but the reality is worse than it describes. Councils have variously felt patronised, lectured and ignored.

In the first wave, critical weeks were lost as council public health directors begged for access to information on infections in their area. Furthermore, preventing council public and environmental health teams from playing a leading role in test and trace – work in which they are expert – cost lives. Research suggests that local test and trace systems typically found between 47% and 91% of the cases the national service had missed.

Civil servants vs consultants

The report highlights how the pandemic has again opened up the fraught debate about whether the civil service lack skills in areas such as project management, statistics, science and even policy. More than £175 million (US$240m) has been spent on external support such as consultants and contractors to plug perceived gaps, the research notes.

In September last year, Cabinet Office and Treasury Minister Lord Agnew claimed Whitehall had been “infantilised” by relying on consultants, “depriving our brightest [public servants of] opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues”. But the IfG also argues that the civil service is failing to make best use of its talent. Whitehall has a history of appointing the right talent in the wrong place, it says, partly because of lamentable HR data – it does not know the profession of a quarter of its staff. This moved be improved if we are to break the narrative on skills gaps.

Transparency

While there has been a deluge of government communications, from Downing Street briefings and online guidance to advertising campaigns and data, the quality, consistency and transparency has been highly variable. Indeed, the report says, “more direct communication is not the same as better or more transparent communication.”

Activity around the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) exemplifies the twists and turns. At the beginning of the pandemic the government refused to reveal who sat on SAGE, until it (inevitably) leaked. From late May ministers responded to media pressure by publishing the group’s advice, the report noted.

But the IfG could go much further in its assessment. At key moments government communications has been blatantly misleading. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is a repeat offender. For example, he was reprimanded by the UK Statistics Authority over government information about COVID tests and claimed test and trace was up and running and successful when it had only just launched. Later assessments by the NAO and others show otherwise.

As the UK reflects on more than 100,000 pandemic deaths, many people have expressed the hope that lessons will be learned from our terrible loss. But there is little evidence in the IfG’s meticulous report that the Prime Minister and those around him understand the scale of their failures or their culpability for what has unfolded.

About Richard Vize

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