While some people watched Eurovision or walked the dog or had the first quiet pint in months Dominic Cummings spent the weekend writing a very, very long Twitter thread on the pandemic.
Yes, it’s full of ludicrous wannabe techbro nonsense, if you are reduced to approvingly quoting Paul Graham then you really need to take a long hard look at yourself, and of course it is a post hoc justification but that does not make it any less valuable as an insight into the greatest British public policy disaster in a century.
The first thing to note from Cummings’s thread relates to something I wrote pre-Pandemic about how good emergency planning is based on building a toolbox of practical and pragmatic choices which give you both options and most importantly breathing space in an emergency. The problem is that that toolbox seems to have been threadbare. The Coalition’s savage cuts to public services meant that expertise was lost, tools not replaced and plans left untested. It’s clear as well that there is no feedback loop, the catastrophic outcomes of the exercise, Operation Nimbus, should have been captured and fed into the toolbox.
The next thing, which continues to be the biggest risk to the country, is that nobody was willing to decide what was the ONE priority? Is it saving life, saving the economy? Nobody can decide so we end up trying to do both and we end up doing neither. Cummings rightly points out the disaster of Sweden but the UK also failed to make a decision.
You can only have ONE priority and all others must align with it. Look at the current chaos around overseas travel. “Amber” is always a sign of confusion and an inability to make tough choices.
Cummings talks about the monoculture of people who you find in government, especially the SCS. And he is right, if you are a delivery person then you will find the Civil Service a hostile environment in exactly the same way you will find private sector monoliths like banks and multinationals hostile environments.
I am biased of course, I left the Civil Service as it was made very plain to me that I was not wanted and because I had seen too many delivery minded colleagues suffer severe physical and mental health issues trying to balance the impossible demands. Delivery was a fine thing but should happen “over there”, not in the core.
There is a reason why long chains of arm’s length bodies exist in areas like the NHS, they quarantine the core from the “taint of delivery”.
So we had no ownership, the “wrong type of people” and no clarity about what the priority was. It sounds sadly familiar.
What did work, and work very well, was delivery based on tried and tested processes. The toolbox. The NHS has done an amazing job at a very personal high cost to many workers. The vaccination programme has been a major success because it has clear goals and the right people involved. The DWP with UC too, using a tried and tested process to successfully deliver emergency outcomes.
The challenge is will the public sector make the fundamental cultural and organisational changes needed to learn from the pandemic or will it continue to treat delivery as literally a lower caste responsibility?