• Development Intelligence

Covid-19 – The political blame game

Boris Johnson by Andrew Parsons (CC BY-ND 2.0) and Keir Starmer by Rwendland (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Putting aside the fake outrage story of the moment – whether Dom Cummings should have ensured his four year old child could be looked after by relatives or handed over to Islington social services if/when he and his wife became incapacitated with Covid-19 (go figure!) – there is nothing the media and Westminster village like more than the political blame game. The rules go like this:

  1. Argue against whatever the Government of the day is doing at all times.

  2. Sit back and wait for mistakes – inevitable when dealing with unprecedented events.

  3. Put on a fresh pair of ‘hindsight glasses’ and publicly and loudly wail about said mistakes.

  4. Desperately forget/cover up that you didn’t have any solutions at the time of said mistakes, because you too were as equally clueless then.

  5. Ignore all things that have gone well as we definitely don’t want any balance here.

  6. Demand an inquiry, resignations, judicial review, prosecutions (delete as appropriate).

And this game gets played out by all political parties and their media outriders on every issue, again and again, ad infinitum. So how is this all going on Covid-19?

Inquiry – Inevitably there will be an inquiry in years to come. The Opposition will demand one ASAP, the Government will push it into the longest grass it can find, both sides wanting to use it or kill it respectively as a 2024 General Election issue (viz the Iraq War inquiry). Of course the aim should be to learn the lessons and improve our plan for future outbreaks. It should be a ‘truth and reconciliation’ moment not a blame game. It won’t be. They never are.

Good things – Some things have gone well: creating NHS critical care bed capacity when we saw the awfulness of the Italian situation in February. The various Treasury support packages (although inevitably not fast enough for some and economically unsustainable in the long term). The furlough scheme will have saved many jobs but alas wont save all, of course. The accuracy of our Covid stats, still wrong by a factor but praised by the WHO for being the most accurate.

Public Health England (PHE) – Here things have not gone as well. This previously sleepy corner of the Government estate, about which most of us knew little and cared less, has been found to be wanting is several ways:

  • Its lack of pre-rehearsed prior planning has been awfully exposed.

  • The missing significant PPE stockpile and pre-agreed emergency PPE supply contracts look like a terrible oversight indeed.

  • Its lack of an ‘off the shelf’, ready to implement testing programme has been a glaring screw up.

  • And SAGE’s wilful lack of transparency raises many questions. If the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee can be transparent, why can’t SAGE?

And then there are some terrible decisions PHE has made during the crisis:

  • Stopping contact tracing in March, actually due to lack of pre-planned capacity.

  • Not advising the Government to stop inbound UK flights will surely turn out to be an obvious mistake, particularly as almost every other affected country did that very early on.

  • Ramping up wider testing way too slowly, and now having to play catch up. Yet another error.

The NHS – In the rush to ‘protect the NHS’ by emptying hospitals into care homes when we all knew from January that the old and infirm were the main targets of Covid-19 will go down in history as a truly horrible mistake. And we have now all discovered that ‘NHS Logistics’ exists and was not fit for purpose. Distributing PPE on a mass scale was not planned for and the system couldn’t cope.

Government mistakes – Now all you anti-Boris types out there will be saying ‘but all these errors are the Government’s fault’. Errr…no. They are actually operational issues not political or policy ones. Sure the Government gets the blame for them, but in reality the distance and disconnection of the decisions that control any of these issues are a million miles downstream of any minister’s private office. Government is a big place. But the Government does have a long list of utter howlers:

  • Being consumed by the immediacy of the health problem and thus in thrall to PHE’s advice whilst failing to balance this with equal and opposing economic advice. This is what pilots call ‘having your head in the cockpit’, spending all your time focussed on the instruments in front of you rather than looking out at the mountain you’re about to fly into. The health crisis will pass in months, the recession will take a decade to recover from. A huge political error.

  • Over-listening to PHE and instituting too harsh a lockdown. Lockdown is not a health issue; it is merely a demand management process to control the potential run on NHS critical care beds. It’s politics and policy, not medical science. Many have this confused. Sweden and Holland, with their lighter touch lockdowns and consequential lesser impact on their economies, will look very clever after all this. We won’t.

  • Not applying a furlough scheme to the public sector. It was easy to frighten people into their caves. It’s going to be much harder to coax them back out again. The private sector will be easier because you can just start reducing furlough, as the Government is doing. But how do you do that in the heavily unionised public sector? There is literally zero incentive for a unionised public sector worker, currently at home on full pay, to come back to work! And if private sector workers have had to share 20% of the financial pain, why shouldn’t public sector ones?

  • Letting PHE control all testing once we restarted it was mad. Countries that have ramped up testing successfully have harnessed the resources of both public and private sectors. The idea that the public sector could quickly design and implement a mass testing system all by itself from scratch should have been shot down by ministers very early on. In the end, this inevitably happened but the delay and pain were immense. A silly political error.

  • Likewise allowing the NHS to create a track and trace app from scratch rather than just using the off the shelf Apple/Google one, which most countries have done, will probably turn out to be a massive error. The public sector’s track record with IT programmes is utterly woeful. And that one is on politicians, to not have finally learned this lesson by now. The public sector always wants to create the ‘new thing’ – be it an aircraft carrier, an IT system and now an app – arguing that it must be bespoke, it’s a special case, their version will be better because…, but do any of us really think that the NHS is going to build a better app than Apple and Google. Really? If so, DI’s got a bridge to sell you!

So, some good things, some bad things, some awful political mistakes inevitably, but many mistakes that are not on ministers’ heads in truth but will be hung around their necks by the Opposition and the media. It does not bode well for the inquiry!