Six months before the UK Covid Inquiry's public hearings, our report suggested lessons to be learned
COVID-19 tested the UK’s crisis structures to breaking point. We must act now to prepare better for the next crisis.
The UK’s COVID-19 inquiry has reached the heart of decision-making during the early days of 2020, with prime actors, including civil servants, politicians and experts, entering centre stage. It has thrown light on decisions that were absent or delayed, on personal roles, and on underlying relations and frictions in the process.
Beyond all the theatre, the ongoing inquiry is exposing some serious and profound issues that go beyond individuals or specific decisions at the time: failures at the heart of government, in terms of its working, its structures and its crisis management capabilities.
With recommendations not expected to arrive before 2026, it is easy to feel disheartened by the ongoing systematic problems, let alone the lack of preparedness for a possible next crisis.
The good news is that our School is ahead of the game, and has undertaken intensive research in this domain. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, a March 2023 report, ‘Crisis Preparation in the Age of Long Emergencies’, by me, Ciaran Martin and Maximilian Fink, aimed to instigate reflection and lesson-learning with an eye on enhancing government capability and crisis preparedness for the future. We are not so much touching on political decisions at the time, but on the underlying governance and structures in place, as well mechanisms of crisis management in the UK government and how this played out in the first six months of the COVID-19 crisis.
Our findings have exposed many of the issues that are now at the heart of the inquiry. The discrepancy between the confidence of the UK government and its lack of actual preparedness for the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. The inventing of the wheel in the absence of plans that would be relevant to the nature of the COVID-19 virus. The absence of capabilities such as testing and tracing for this scale. Problems with the role of expertise in the face of what, at the beginning, was a very limited evidence base. The sidelining of crisis management institutions such as COBR when they turned out to be insufficient to address the scale of the crisis.
Social media commentary on the COVID-19 inquiry is rife with anger and blame. Our report, in contrast, deliberately avoids assessing specific decisions, measures, or individuals – whether in relation to the years of pandemic preparation ahead of 2020, or to the heat of COVID-19’s onset. As report authors, we had all of the hindsight and none of the pressures. So as we say in the Introduction, “this study does not seek to malign those doing their best at the time, but rather to help those facing similar challenges in the future.”
With that in mind, the key points in the report are about the way forward. Ten ideas are at its heart:
- Regular audits of the capabilities of key crisis response institutions (p.55)
- Plans and simulations that emphasise agility and adaptation (p.58)
- Multi-department planning for major crisis scenarios, including Treasury input (p.61)
- Better live data- and evidence-gathering, from a broader base (p.64)
- Reform of the emergency procurement framework (p.85)
- Crisis management training for many more civil servants (p.85)
- Getting serious about building local capability (p.103)
- Transforming central–local coordination mechanisms (p.104)
- Taking a long, hard look at how devolution works in a crisis (p.124)
- Learning how to learn from other countries in real time (p.124).
Our report is 178 pages long and offers detailed insight on crisis preparedness for, and management of, COVID-19; the mobilisation of capabilities across a broad spectrum; and the coordination between central, devolved and local layers of the UK government. It also gives an extensive comparative overview of four other countries (Singapore, Australia, Germany and Italy).
In turning lessons into action – whether from official inquiries such as that underway in the UK, or from reports like ours – we must be very careful not to prepare for the crisis that just occurred. Rather, we must implement lessons that will make us agile and resilient for whatever crisis is to come. It may be health-related, conflict-related, climate-related or technology-related – but we know that, eventually, we will face another crisis. Our report aims to help prepare for it.