Boris Johnson’s response to the coronavirus crisis has been marked by a lack of strong leadership and clear strategy which has left the UK “incapable” of combatting the pandemic effectively and risks “protracted and extremely costly” consequences, according to a former head of the civil service.
In a speech today setting out his “humbling” assessment of the UK’s performance, Gus O’Donnell will accuse ministers of deferring too much to medical experts in order to be able to say they were “following the science”, while paying too little attention to other harms to the nation’s well-being.
And he will say that the prime minister burnt up his political capital with his defence of lockdown-breaching aide Dominic Cummings and his tendency to “over-promise and under-deliver”.
Soundbites about world-beating testing systems and moonshot operations put “enormous” pressure on the system to deliver outcomes designed to be eye-catching to the public rather than “scientifically thought-out”. And ever-changing rules and guidance caused increasing “confusion and frustration” with every announcement, he will say.
The judgement from Lord O’Donnell - the cabinet secretary to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron who led the civil service during the financial crisis of 2008 - comes amid reports of differences between Mr Johnson and his chief medical officer over the latest coronavirus restrictions, with Chris Whitty understood to favour England following Scotland in banning social contacts between different households within their homes.
A member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), Prof John Edmunds, warned that Mr Johnson’s 10pm curfew on pubs in England was likely to have only a “trivial” impact on the spread of the disease and predicted that more “very stringent” measures would be needed soon.
Speaking to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Lord O’Donnell is expected to say that it is time to “cast aside ideas of British exceptionalism and look to the likes of New Zealand, Singapore and Korea on how we can do things better”.
Pointing to data showing the UK lagging near the bottom of international league tables for excess mortality, harm to well-being and lost GDP due to the pandemic, he said: "We have to ask why a country with such reputed health and intelligence institutions has been so incapable of combatting the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In 2019, we were ranked second in the world for pandemic preparedness by the Global Health Security Index.
“A litany of new rules and a steady stream of leaks reflects a government struggling to emerge from firefighting mode. Without a clear strategy, strong leadership and the use of good evidence from a range of human sciences, there is a risk that our efforts to emerge from this pandemic will be protracted and extremely costly".
The former cabinet secretary is expected to say that ministers had enough information by the end of January to know that “a storm might be coming”, and then had the advantage of several weeks to learn from countries like Italy which were hit first by Covid-19.
But he will say: “It is not clear how far such learning took place.”
Ministers made a “key error” early on by focusing all of its attention on Sage as “a group of scientists providing expert advice to allow ministers to say they were ‘following the science’,” he will say.
But the expertise of Sage’s membership meant it prioritised medical outcomes over the potential social and economic harm to the UK, and its recommendations were “laced with assumptions about human behaviour”.
Lockdown measures sent a “stark” message that the government was placing a far higher value than normal on “extra years of life”, rather than measures of well-being such as the health of people with other conditions and the education of children, skewing the public’s understanding of the threat from the illness.
“In 2008, Gordon Brown asked me to assemble the best economists in the world to advise him on how to handle the banks during the global financial crisis,” Lord O’Donnell is expected to say. “Perhaps we should have used Zoom to foster dialogue between the world’s leading behavioural specialists to advise governments how to deliver changes in behaviour that would reduce the risks of reinfection at the lowest economic and social costs.”
In addition to ”operational failings” in the provision of PPE and creation of a testing system, ministers “have frequently broken one of the cardinal rules: they have over-promised and under-delivered”, he will say.
“Talk of moonshots shows they have not learnt this lesson yet,” Lord O’Donnell will argue. “That puts enormous pressure on the system and results in behaviours which ‘hit the target but miss the point’, like sending out lots of home tests which are not returned.”
“Too much faith” was placed in digital solutions, like the coronavirus app finally being released today. And attempts were made to cast the blame on Public Health England, whose abolition made little sense at a time of crisis, he will say.
Lord O’Donnell will call for the creation of a National Covid Council, along the lines of the National Security Council, to ensure that ministers receive and assess advice from a wider range of experts. It is not clear that the government’s Cobra contingencies committee played this role effectively, he will say.
And he will urge Mr Johnson to conclude a trade deal with the EU before the end of 2020, warning that the business community will otherwise face a calamitous “perfect storm” of a second wave of coronavirus combined with a no-deal Brexit.
“If I have one take-home, it is this,” he will say. “The government lacked - and it still lacks - a policy framework that can properly assess the costs and benefits of different measures.
“This is in part because the medical sciences have informed strategy far more than have various other branches of science. A vital adjustment is needed to this now, or the government will find itself without a workable strategy, between a rock and a hard place.”