The Week

The Week 3 November 2023

Charlotte Pickles

It has been another damaging week for government, with some of those at the heart of decision-making during the pandemic giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry. The picture painted is one of deep dysfunction. Of people entrusted with the health — in the broadest sense — of the nation falling so very short.

There was a lack of clear political leadership and decision-making accountability, a lack of understanding of what 'the science' was actually showing — and yet a shocking over reliance on it — and an inexplicable bravado in the face of a totally unknown disease. The Government was woefully out of its depth with inexperienced ministers and advisers, and a Prime Minister who, in addition to being new, was totally unsuited to leading through this crisis. The culture in the executive centre of government was, the WhatsApp messages revealed, corrosive and divided — the very opposite of what was required.

Yet while SW1 has made much of Dom Cummings' blue language, the testimonies have also exposed serious failings of the Whitehall system.

Then Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara told the Inquiry of the absence of plans: “the working assumption, incorrect, was that the Department of Health had a whole series of plans that were ready for this”.

In our own analysis of what went wrong, published back in 2021, Reform noted that the Treasury had done no prior thinking on economic support, the then business department permanent secretary was not even aware of the pandemic exercise Cygnus, and the Department for Education had totally failed to consider the implications of national school closures or exam disruption. “These examples”, we argued, “demonstrate a failure to implement the most basic principles of emergency planning”. This should have been the job of the permanent civil service.

Shortcomings in the pandemic response were also linked to homogeneity at the top of government — yes on the political side, but also among officials. Lee Cain, the PM's former comms chief told the Inquiry “there was a lack of understanding of what families were potentially going through at that time because…you know, this is solely just because I think people…have never lived it, they don't appreciate it and they don't appreciate those challenges. So I think this was just one example of many where, if you had more diversity in the room, and again it's a range of diversity, I think it would improve decision-making and improve policy making.”

In MacNamara's statement she wrote “In terms of the policy response the exclusion of a female perspective led to significant negative consequences, including the lack of thought given to childcare in the context of school closures. There was a serious lack of thinking about domestic abuse and the vulnerable, about carers and informal networks for how people look after each other in families and communities.” We also saw her email to the then (male) head of the NHS Simon Stevens pointing out that “most PPE isn't designed for female bodies”, yet the majority of those requiring it were women.

This week, as part of our 'Reimagining Whitehall' programme, we published a fascinating report authored by former civil servant Amy Gandon. Based on interviews with 50 former and recent mid-grade civil servants, she paints a worrying picture of frustration and disillusionment. This lack of diversity and more broadly the insularity of Whitehall was repeatedly cited.

One participant talked about the “white Oxbridge men” that dominated decision-making roles on Covid, another of the “lack of real understanding of what it is like to be outside of an upper middle-class income”, and one reflected “I found myself thinking: most of the work being done in this team has been done by people under 30, who don’t have a mortgage and don’t have children. And that’s not the public.”

Several spoke of the lack of external engagement, with one saying “Those in positions of authority — whether they’re senior civil servants or politicians — don’t speak to many people outside of Whitehall.”

This perspective matches that of many of those at the most senior level. For 'Breaking down the barriers' Reform interviewed former permanent secretaries and senior officials. Their observations were similar: “There’s a lot of people who are pretty much the same. They either went to selective grammar school or private school. They went to Oxbridge largely. They largely joined the Fast Stream.”

Inexperience was also an issue on the official side during Covid. Those interviewed by Amy for 'Civil unrest' talked about the urgency to fill key Brexit and then Covid roles leading to over-promotion. “The grade inflation has been quite significant... You get more and more inexperienced people doing really senior positions, because they played it right with someone at a certain point... I was managed by a 27-year-old Deputy Director... Where is the experience coming from?” And many talked of the perennially cited issue of churn, leading to loss of specialist expertise and huge amounts of time wasted on getting up to speed with a completely new area.

We could add to this list the shortage of science expertise (strongly expressed by Kate Bingham, former vaccine tsar, back in 2021); the fragmented nature of the Whitehall departmental model (MacNamara wrote of “an absence of the accountable people in departments being involved or sufficiently involving themselves in decision making”); and the bureaucratic, process-driven culture that hinders fast decision-making (Cummings in his written submission: "Issuing orders from the very apex of power in an emergency did not trump HR bureaucracy”).

The point is that while much of the coverage has focused on political failures — of which there were many — the failures of Whitehall were as significant.

Back in 2021 when Reform published its analysis of why Britain was not in fact well prepared for a pandemic, we pointed out that a public inquiry was unlikely to be the best way to learn lessons: “The Government cannot wait for a public inquiry for this work to begin — pandemics, nor any other risks, do not wait for public inquiries.” Giving evidence to the Lords' Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee in Summer 2021, I also noted that the heavy focus on placing blame inherent in public inquires is unlikely to create a culture conducive to driving real change (which is not to say accountability isn't key).

The Covid Inquiry is set to finish taking evidence in Summer 2026, who knows what further crises we will have faced by then. The pandemic revealed flaws in the government machine that were already well known — action is needed now.