Too early to start thinking about a post-Covid public inquiry? Maybe so – everyone and everything is maxed out. Those working night and day to contain and improve the situation have better things to think about.
And yet. And yet.
Even in the midst of a crisis, establishing an audit trail is important. Why? Because hindsight needs a robust evidential start point.
Whether the promised inquiry is a Leveson, Francis, Chilcot or some other format, it needs to focus on learning, and on accountability. From a public policy perspective – and national crisis management is accelerated, pressure cooker public policy – we need to know what worked and what didn’t.
As much as it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees when you’re in the middle of a situation, there’s a kind of visceral immediacy to the learning. So forgive me for trying to get ahead of hindsight and consider some of the themes an inquiry might explore. I don’t know the answers; but I can hazard a guess at some of the questions.
First, capacity – were we prepared?
We knew that there was the threat of a pandemic, albeit focused on influenza, not a novel virus; and that the risk was felt to have increased since 2015. A pandemic response was exercised in 2016, and one of the learning points was that ‘an effective response would require capability and capacity to surge services to meet demand’.
The inquiry will want to know whether this was in place when Covid first emerged as a threat to the UK, matched by financial, human and other (eg PPE) resources. It will want to know what funding patterns over the previous period had done either to diminish or enhance our resilience, nationally and locally.
The inquiry might also usefully broaden its remit to wider Government policy, given the relationship between the way we have chosen to structure our society and the consequent impact of the virus. Someone working in the gig economy, for example, might have a choice between self-isolating and eating. Public policy needs to be alive to these causative relationships, and incentivise accordingly.
Second, planning and strategy – were we confident how this would turn out?
Like ‘normal’ public policy, a crisis response needs a story arc – a strategy. This isn’t just a nicety – it’s the thing off which practical plans, at all levels, hang. The alignment of the story arc with reality needs to be constantly tested. How, for example, did the UK’s Covid strategy compare with those of other nations; and how did we adapt through those comparisons?
And strategy can’t assume a linear narrative – the unexpected always happens (in this case in the form of new variants and ‘Long Covid’ – though an inquiry might also ask how virus mutation and the possibility of longer-term illness were factored into the strategy). There’s a military thing called the ‘OODA Loop’: the ability to get inside an opponent’s operational rhythm and defeat them. Was the Government inside the Covid OODA Loop, ahead of the range of possible scenarios, constantly planning the next response to changed circumstances, always feedback looping into decision-making?
A crisis management strategy also needs to be followed through single-mindedly. Brexit will have absorbed government time and energy just at the time when it needed to focus on a national crisis. The same for machinery of government changes through 2020. Of course, a crisis doesn’t mean that everything else has to go on hold, and to a certain extent maintaining some degree of normality is key to surviving the experience. But was this the right set of priorities, and to what extent did in-trays overlap for key personnel?
Third, leadership – were we well led?
Most of us will have experienced Government leadership through messaging. But leadership of course goes much deeper than strategic comms. I’ll explore this theme more deeply in my next blog, but one point now: effective leaders need to invite challenge, welcome diversity of thought and avoid groupthink. These are the foundation stones of good public policy.
The challenge comes in part from expert advice. Experts need to be able to explain complex issues to non-experts; but more importantly, non-experts have to have the capacity and ability to listen and comprehend. Understanding evidence and analysis is a learned mindset, not an intuition.
Maybe we need to do more to help our politicians manage the expert/ non-expert dialogue. It’s striking, for example, that only one of the Two Cultures (the humanities) is represented in the current Cabinet. There might be a need for training. Or it could involve actively changing the political demographic to bring on board more scientists, medics, analysts and so on. The political class is strikingly short of people with any kind of scientific background (noting, of course, the possibility that scientists might for some reason be less interested in political careers).
Two final points.
In crisis management, you either have an insurance policy, which you pay for upfront; or deal with the problem, and pay for it, when it occurs. It’s a core judgement in public policy, and one that requires constant attention. It carries a heavy political overlay, depending on your perspective on the function of the state.
And whatever kind of inquiry we get, and whatever its findings, the Government of the day needs to act on it. Inquiries have a role in catharsis, certainly, but more important is that they should lead to beneficial change.
Memories are short, and inquiries are an opportunity to bake a particular experience into the way we think. How often they do so is open to question. On this occasion, we need the thoroughgoing, no holds barred inquiry that this monumental episode warrants.
One that, in turn, better prepares us for the next time a multi-faceted, all-encompassing, social, economic and political crisis comes calling.