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The British state needs rewiring

Britain has long prided itself on its Rolls-Royce government machine, but this crisis has exposed its limitations

May 14, 2020

12:39 PM

14 May 2020

12:39 PM

‘COVID-19 has been perhaps the biggest test of governments worldwide since the 1940s,’ declares the UK government’s command paper on the virus. The fact that the following paragraph proposes ‘a rapid re-engineering of government’s structures and institutions’ is telling. It is an implicit admission that the British government machine is, in several important areas, failing this test.

The argument about whether the UK has the worst death toll in Europe risks descending into statistical absurdity. Until excess mortality figures are known, it won’t be possible to come to a verdict. But it’s hard to argue that the UK has done much better than France, Spain and Italy. We have clearly done worse than Germany and are miles behind South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

To put it another way, there’ll be no international teams coming to this country to learn how to prepare for a pandemic. This is all the more shocking given that for some time a pandemic had been at the top of the national risk register. The UK government regarded itself as being one of the best-prepared in the world. But it had been preparing for an influenza pandemic. Considering that COVID-19 is the third coronavirus outbreak this century (after Sars and Mers), this was an unacceptable failure of imagination.

Britain has long prided itself on its Rolls-Royce government machine. This crisis, though, has exposed its limitations. One Whitehall veteran says that the 10 days leading up to March 23 were ‘the nearest the wiring of the state has come to collapse. It wasn’t just blowing a fuse: the motherboard was beginning to melt down.’

The lockdown has cast the state centre stage. It is paying the bulk of the wages of 7.5 million private sector workers and offering cash support, loan guarantees and cheap credit to business. But as one Secretary of State admits, ‘the government couldn’t have got through this crisis without the private sector’. For instance, there haven’t been the food shortages that many feared there would be when supply chains began to be disrupted. When the government was failing on testing, private companies stepped in to help it hit its 100,000-a-day target. This private sector involvement is going to continue to be crucial. I understand that key figures in government believe this country will need the capacity to carry out 500,000 tests a day if the lockdown is to be properly lifted, though others think 200,000 will be enough for a comprehensive track and trace strategy.


A hubristic belief in the ability of the state to do it all lay behind the most disastrous decision of this whole episode: the ending of testing and tracing early in the outbreak. Ministers were told that there wasn’t the capacity to carry out enough tests as the virus started spreading. But there could have been. The problem was that businesses, universities and research institutes were not being asked for help by Public Health England. A more collaborative approach, as seen in Germany, would have allowed testing to be increased at sufficient speed.

Part of the difficulty was that Public Health England, created in 2013, is an arms-length body. This means that while the Secretary of State for Health can remove its chair, he can’t tell it what to do on a day-to-day basis. One result of the past few months will be that these arms-length bodies will lose their autonomy. In future, ministers will be able to issue them with instructions.

Another body that is the subject of much ire is the Cabinet Office. One of its jobs is to coordinate between various players: the scientific advisory committee (Sage), the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and the rest of government. According to Whitehall sources, it has struggled. At first blush this seems strange: it is run by Michael Gove, regarded as the Tories’ most effective departmental minister. Indeed, Gove’s ability to run a department is one of the reasons Boris Johnson kept him in the cabinet despite their spectacular rupture in 2016. But only half of the Cabinet Office answers to Gove: the other half is a civil service fiefdom. This must change if government is to function better.

Theresa May’s time in No. 10 made this problem worse. There used to be three secretariats: one covering economic and domestic policy, another national security and a third EU and global issues. She merged them into one. This has led to a lack of debate within Whitehall. One hawk in government says that this issue has been compounded by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill staying on as national security adviser. They complain that in a well-functioning system the national security adviser would have challenged the Cabinet Secretary on the Huawei decision, but that can’t happen when the national security adviser and the Cabinet Secretary are the same person. A break-up of Sir Mark’s empire looks inevitable.

Cabinet government has also been a victim of lockdown. Even one ally of the Prime Minister admits ‘everything is getting more fractious’. The mood of the outer cabinet (everyone in cabinet apart from Gove, Matt Hancock, Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab) is turning rancorous. They are irritated to see decisions taken before the cabinet has met. They feel that their advice is being ignored.

Ben Wallace, the Defense Secretary, has told allies that he offered the military’s help to try to lessen the tragedy seen in care homes. On one occasion last month, Wallace wanted to join the morning coronavirus call, which is more important than cabinet meetings these days. One member of the inner cabinet who is always on the call said he wasn’t comfortable with the chatty Wallace dialing in, with the result that the Defense Secretary was not involved. He has, though, been on the calls which have discussed the armed forces’ role in the COVID response.

The debate in the UK is too often about whether we want big or small government when what we really need is effective government. Britain has long flattered itself that it leads the world in administration, but COVID-19 has highlighted how far from being true that now is. The British state needs rewiring for the 21st century if the system is not to melt down completely in the next crisis.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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