The botched response to the coronavirus pandemic is a collective failure of Britain’s governing class. From complacency in the early days and confusing public health messages throughout the crisis to its shambolic testing system, the government has struggled to get a grip. It has revealed the fundamental weakness of the state after a decade of Tory misrule.
Seasoned Whitehall watchers often remark: “It wouldn’t have been like this if Jeremy Heywood were still around.” The late former cabinet secretary was a truly formidable mandarin – with a first-class mind and an unfathomable capacity for hard work. But the lament of his passing also reveals the lack of resilience of the British state. How could it be that the effectiveness of the once-revered civil service had become reliant on a single man?
The dysfunctionality seems to be all-pervasive. There appears to be no coherent government-wide strategy that integrates public health and economic objectives. Such a coordinating function is traditionally the responsibility of Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. What has gone so wrong? Claims that the civil service was the envy of the world were always hyperbole but now seem absurd.
As early as May, NHS chiefs were anticipating a second wave of the virus occurring in October and began to plan accordingly. Yet Rishi Sunak’s Treasury waited until last week to set out its hastily cobbled together jobs protection scheme; one that is riddled with flaws. How did the once-mighty Treasury find itself so far behind the curve yet again?
Even the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, Sage, has appeared to be in chaos. Unable to reach consensus positions, its members have offered their opinions in public, setting aside traditional conventions of collective responsibility. The emergence of the so-called Independent Sage has added to the confusion. Some interventions in the media seem aimed at avoiding blame, rather than assisting the public in making sense of the crisis.
Public Health England – the quango created by the Tory-led coalition’s disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012 – has performed so poorly it is to be abolished. Notwithstanding the heroic work of frontline staff, the NHS as an institution also has some serious questions to answer about its focus on avoiding Covid-19 deaths at the expense of other essential services for cancer patients and many others. Where was the democratic, transparent discussion of these choices?
Britain is exposed to dysfunction at the centre precisely because the state has become so centralised over the past 40 years. The contrast with other countries is striking: in Britain, local lockdowns are imposed from Whitehall rather than determined by local leaders according to local circumstances, as they are elsewhere, such as France or Germany. Swingeing cuts to local government as a result of austerity have left administration at a local level almost completely hollowed out.
Yet in many respects this dysfunctionality is unsurprising. The two pillars of the Tories’ governing project over the past decade have been austerity and Brexit. Austerity was always intended to erode the capacity and capability of the British state – that is why it cannot now respond to crisis. NHS Test and Trace, with its web of functions outsourced to different entities, is emblematic of its enfeeblement. Meanwhile, Brexit has been an enormous drain of time and attention, all in an attempt to ultimately preserve what we already had as EU members. We are paying the price of rejecting cooperation with our friends and neighbours.
It also reflects a deeper reality of our current political circumstances. Boris Johnson has portrayed his leadership as a new beginning and a break with the past. But this government is, in fact, not new at all: the Tories have been at the helm for a decade. The current crop of ministers reflects not talent but survival. The rewards have flowed to those who stayed on the right side of Johnson, not those who might be able to capably run a government department. Just like its leader, this is a government bereft of talent, ideas and energy, and so has failed to steer the country through the greatest crisis of modern times.
But Britain is not alone. Among advanced countries, Britain and the United States have had the weakest responses to the pandemic. On both sides of the Atlantic, the state has been maligned and undermined by years of free-market ideology that has long held government to be an obstacle to progress, rather than an engine of it. We are all paying the price of this foolish ideology. Building back better needs to start with jettisoning the notion that problems are best solved individually rather than collectively. All our lives depend on it.
• Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics