Responding to Shocks – lessons from Covid-19

 

This article for the National Preparedness Commission written by Rhys Clyne, a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government, summarises three of the 10 lessons identified from the UK Governments’ response to Covid-19.

In March the Institute for Government published a report that set out 10 lessons to learn from the response of UK Government to the pandemic. The recommendations were based on a series of interviews with politicians and officials from central, local and devolved government, asking them to reflect on what they had learned from the past 12 months about the strengths and weaknesses of the British state.

The report covers a range of issues including how government makes decisions, implements policy, communicates with the public, and is held accountable for its work. The government needs to learn from the pandemic about all of these topics if it is going to be better prepared for major crises in the future.

The first three lessons are particularly relevant to the work of the National Preparedness Commission as they focus on the extent to which the UK was able to anticipate, and plan for, Covid-19.

The National Risk Register is fairly effective at identifying the ‘known known’ risks facing the UK but it does not do enough to help manage them.

It is impossible to foresee every eventuality but the UK’s National Risk Register and contingency planning arrangements are effective at identifying the more predictable risks and analysing their potential impacts. However, the Register does not adequately inform how departments plan for, or spend money on addressing, risks in specific areas of policy and operations.

Pandemics have long been near the top of the National Risk Register but the interviewees felt that its assessments had not filtered out from the centre of government to influence decisions made by line departments. In many areas, new approaches had to be developed in haste in response to the pandemic such as how to handle the exam season when schools were closed and how to subsidise the wages of employees who could not work because of lockdown. Recognising that the Register had prioritised influenza over other disease risks, several departments were still caught out by their lack of existing plans to handle what had long been considered one of the top risks facing the UK.

The National Risk Register needs to be used more proactively to help departments manage their preparedness for future crises. Central risk analysis needs to be operationalised across departments and incorporated into every aspect of government policy. This should be supported by more civil-contingency exercises including all parts of government with the results being made public.

The UK’s preparedness depends on the government protecting its response capacity.

Most public services entered the pandemic with little spare capacity which limited their ability to absorb the demand and workforce pressures of the crisis. When it comes to the availability of critical care beds, demand for GPs’ services and other measures, the NHS ranks poorly compared to other developed nations. The spending power of local government reduced by approximately 40% between 2010 and 2016. Furthermore, the absence of a long-term funding solution for social care meant that the care sector was ‘very fragile’ as the pandemic began.

Covid-19 was always going to put pressure on intensive care beds, social-care placements and the wider system of public services that faces staff absences, heightened demand and backlogs. Yet, the lack of ‘give’ in the capacity of public services made these pressures more difficult.

Ultimately, choices about levels of investment in public services and the capacity of Whitehall departments have consequences for the government’s ability to respond to shock events. It is important that the capacity to respond is protected in the budget process and in ministers’ plans for their departments. All public-sector organisations need to have the capacity to change their design and operations rapidly in response to crises.

The government needs to be better prepared to make rapid, cross-departmental policy decisions when crises strike.

The government has a generally effective response to emergencies of which the UK already has experience such as floods and terrorist attacks. The Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR) is convened, supported by contingency-planning experts in the Cabinet Office and led by the Prime Minister or relevant Secretary of State. This works well when faced with a crisis for which the government already has an established operational response based on tried and tested policy.

The UK’s response to the pandemic was difficult partly because there was no established policy for dealing with it. The UK immediately faced huge and urgent policy decisions about whether and how to lock down, what to do at the border, and how to support people and businesses financially. Major new policy responses were required of most if not all departments.

The government recognised that its decision-making structure was not designed to handle a large-scale, novel crisis like Covid-19. The structure went through various iterations over the following months which caused confusion in government about where and how decisions were being made. It also allowed policies from different parts of government to contradict each other. For example, the Treasury’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme encouraged indoor socialising while the Department of Health and Social Care warned against it.

Eventually, the government seemed to land on a formula that worked for the Prime Minister but it took months to do so. The next time the UK faces a novel crisis, one of the government’s first moves should be to create and deploy an authoritative policy-brokering and co-ordination team, in the Cabinet Office that can support Cabinet committees to make quick, cross-government decisions.

A formal inquiry into the handling of the pandemic will take time to report, even once set up by the government, but that should not stop the UK from strengthening its preparedness for future crises right away.

See the full report: Responding to shocks: 10 lessons for government.