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A hat trick of pandemic failures

How the government has so badly mishandled its response to the pandemic – and the questions which Parliament and future inquiries should ask

Britain is suffering and will continue to suffer more than any other country in the world from the pandemic, write Jim McConalogue and Tim Knox in A hat trick of failures: How ‘the Blob’ led the British Government down the wrong path, to be published by the think tank Civitas on Thursday 25 June.

  • Along with Spain, Britain has the highest excess death rate per capita in the world for the first half of 2020 (new analysis of Economist and CDC data).
  • The government’s reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic has also been one of the most expensive of any country in the OECD both in terms of the cost of the measures that the government has taken and the overall damage to the economy (OECD).
  • Only three countries in the world are less prepared to ease lockdown restrictions than the UK: Algeria, Nicaragua and Iran (based on data from Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University).

McConalogue and Knox put the blame for this poor response on what they call ‘The Blob’ – the scientific clique entrenched within a managerialist Whitehall culture which the politicians chose not to confront or question. They show how the advisory groups to the government appear to have been granted ‘a representational monopoly’ with the advice coming from SAGE, NERVTAG, SPI-M and PHE being rarely challenged either by government or by those outside the inner circle of advisers.

They also criticise the enthusiasm with which Ministers hid behind ‘the science’. They show how there can be no such thing as ‘the science’, that there are many branches of science which were effectively ignored by government advisers, and that other more successful countries such as Germany used a far wider range of expertise in response to the pandemic. At times, they suggest, that advisers decided and ministers advised.

To make it worse, they show that ministerial deference to ‘the science’ was frequently not justified. ‘The science’ made many mistakes. Other considerations – the impact of sending of elderly infected patients from NHS hospitals to care homes, the economic costs, the constitutional consequences, the social costs, the harm inflicted on patients suffering other diseases, – were never given the attention they deserved.

The authors recommend that Parliament and future inquiries should ask the following questions, inter alia:
• Should the government have drawn upon a far wider pool of expertise than that offered by SAGE and the other advisory bodies?
• Should there be a re-evaluation of the purposes, composition and objectives of the government’s scientific advisory groups? What line of separation should exist between ministers in government and the advice of the scientific committees so that there is, at least to some extent, some separation of political power from advice-providing committees?
• Should appointments to future scientific advisory bodies, unlike at present, conform to the guidance set out by the Office for Commission for Public Appointments (OCPA)?
• Should the circular and self-reinforcing way in which COBR authorises SAGE but then almost solely and unquestionably relies upon SAGE’s advice in return be dismantled?
• How can ministers be enabled and encouraged not to hide behind official advice but to exercise a stronger role in the decision-making process?
• Why did other European countries – including Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands – fare so much better in terms of their rates of excess deaths, the economic impact of the measures taken in response to the pandemic and their readiness to ease lockdown?

A hat trick of failures

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