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Mile End Institute

Policy learning in a pandemic: The UK perspective - Dr Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond dissects the UK’s response to the COVID-19 crisis so far and how it has been determined by a number of underlying weaknesses within its policy-making systems – among other things, the British Government’s reluctant attitude towards policy learning and borrowing.

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Although the British Government continues to enjoy a remarkably high level of public trust, its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been heavily criticised by experts. According to the medical journal, The Lancet, “The US and UK governments have provided among the worst responses to the pandemic, with sheer lies and incompetence from the former, and near-criminal delays and obfuscation from the latter”. Boris Johnson’s administration has since implemented a stringent lockdown, but critics maintain its approach has been largely reactive. As a consequence, alternative pathways have been shut off, particularly the intelligence-led method of Singapore and South Korea which led the world on data, testing, contact-tracing, and isolation of infected individuals.

In Europe, Germany appears to have been the most well prepared. At a Downing Street Press Conference on 7 April, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty, remarked: “We all know that Germany got ahead in terms of its ability to do testing for the virus, and there’s a lot to be learned from that”.

The public policy scholar Brian Head has noted that, “the politics of responding to policy problems and to urgent crises will generate diverse tactics among political leaders – ranging from avoidance and denial, symbolic reassurance, blame attribution, [and] establishing expert inquiries”. All of these tactics have been deployed at various points during this crisis. Of course, we are still at an early stage of what is an escalating public health emergency. We don’t yet have comparable data to compare infection, hospitalisation and mortality rates across countries authoritatively. There is considerable uncertainty. Yet it is apparent that Britain entered this crisis with five structural vulnerabilities in its policy-making systems and governing institutions, which weakened its capacity to respond effectively, particularly in translating insights from policy learning internationally. Governing capability has been hollowed out. As a result, the response to this pandemic has been suboptimal. It is important to reiterate that these institutional pathologies long predate the current crop of ministers.

The first weakness concerns the politicisation of expertise. Scholars point to the recent denigration and politicisation of expertise in British policy making. While the Government’s reliance on epidemiologists, medical and public health professionals alongside behavioural psychologists, economists, and other social scientists since the crisis erupted may have fed an optimistic narrative about the ‘return of experts’, the ability of academics and scientists to operate effectively within the UK system of government is increasingly questionable. The role of political advisers in filtering knowledge is a particular concern, as is the tendency to cherry-pick evidence while marginalising dissident voices in the scientific community.

The second weakness relates to governance at the centre in Whitehall. A decade ago, the UK’s national security strategy stated, “The risk of human pandemic disease remains one of the highest we face”. It was escalated on the Government’s risk register. Yet Whitehall has appeared under-prepared throughout much of the current crisis. This in part reflects the deteriorating relationship between ministers and civil servants, and the capacity to deal with risk effectively. The growth of distrust has been underway for several decades. Still, it is striking that in the months immediately preceding the pandemic, a full-scale Whitehall briefing war between political advisers and civil servants erupted.

The health emergency appears to have done little to bring the warring factions together. At the beginning of April, several national newspapers carried anonymous briefings blaming Sir Mark Sedwell, the Cabinet Secretary, for the inept handling of the crisis. The breakdown of the Whitehall machine further reflects weak co-ordination between government departments, with rumours of rifts and turf wars in the absence of a coherent strategy. The task of ensuring departments work together relies on cabinet committee structures which have struggled to break through entrenched silos. Henry Kissinger has written that the pandemic will reinforce the sense in many countries that institutions are failing or inadequate. Attention will turn inevitably to Whitehall’s fitness for purpose.

The third weakness is a facet of the confused and ambiguous relationship between central government and devolved governance. Having been through two decades of constitutional reform and asymmetric devolution with different governing arrangements across Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, Great Britain is now a hybrid state that is neither federal nor fully centralised. Of course, distributing policy tasks at different tiers of governance in a health emergency makes sense. British government at the centre has intervened decisively to inject resources into the national healthcare system with impressive results, notably the construction of the 4000-bed Nightingale hospital in nine days. The scope and scale of the Treasury’s economic interventions to safeguard jobs and household incomes have been unprecedented. Yet the UK’s convoluted governance structures have impeded other forms of policy action, notably in ensuring provision of community-based social care while channelling support to the most vulnerable households during the lockdown. Local government has a critical role to play, but it is under-resourced and still treated as a supplicant of Whitehall.

The fourth weakness reflects British Government’s recurrent tendency towards policy exceptionalism. Although the UK state has become somewhat more porous and alive to international experience since the 1980s, there is an enduring myth that British institutions, British practices, and British public policies provide a template for the rest of the world, and there is little meaningful to learn from elsewhere. The current health crisis threatens to test that national myth to destruction.

The final weakness, by no means exclusive to the UK, is a reflection of inept global policy co-ordination. Across the world, the response to the pandemic has been almost exclusively national in focus. There has been far too little emphasis on sharing data, knowledge and best practices across borders, with the US leading in the way in its intransigent attitude towards global collaboration. Yet all countries, including the UK, will suffer as a consequence.

For all the errors of recent months, it is never too late to learn. The UK must seek to understand how other countries have sought to frame post-crisis agendas. There is some indication that in managing the pandemic and its aftermath, the British Government is beginning to engage with a broader range of evidence about what is happening elsewhere to plot a viable exit strategy. The risk-adapted model devised by a group of government scientists in Germany is proving influential across Europe. The report recommends large-scale co-ordinated testing, combined with a targeted approach to the lifting of restrictions focusing on low-risk, high-value sectors of the economy and society.

Even so, the signs are that the pandemic and its aftermath will require new thinking and new tools across the entire landscape of public policy. Crises ought to be catalysts for rapid policy learning, adjustment and adaptation. Most advanced economy countries are witnessing the fastest and deepest contraction of economic output and GDP on record. Meanwhile, the aftershocks of the pandemic will in all likelihood lead to a social emergency in many countries, as the effects of the lockdown are felt on pre-existing policy problems from educational inequality to mental illness, placing unprecedented strain on public services. Understandably, governments everywhere are immersed in day-to-day crisis management. They will need to turn their attention imminently to the long-term horizon, using the power of active government together with citizen mobilisation to identify and prevent problems created by the aftershocks of the crisis – the essence of intelligent governance.

This article was originally published on Monday 20 April by the UWA Public Policy Institute. 

Dr Patrick Diamond is former Head of Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office, Number Ten Downing Street, and Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary University of London.