During this crisis centralised power has proved to be good at delivering some important outputs – and hopeless at others.
The emergency has turned a spotlight onto a number of issues that are usually of no interest to the public. The two biggest examples – which are of life or death importance to the public – are the availability of PPE and testing.
In the past the way in which medical equipment and activity was distributed across the country was a matter of interest only to hundreds of people. Now it matters to tens of millions. They puzzle over the disconnect between the statements made in Whitehall about large numbers of pieces of equipment, and the loud social media pleas about the absence of testing and PPE that they see reported on every news bulletin.
The Government have made three basic mistakes.
Firstly, they believed for weeks that the daily announcement of big numbers at press conferences would close the issue off. Again and again senior ministers announced enormous numbers (the biggest number I remember was 720 million pieces) of PPE equipment. Some of us of a certain age remember politicians in the Soviet Union announcing that they had made a million tractors. Yet no-one could see any of them working in the fields.
Each time they announced the big number a real care worker, nurse or doctor would appear on the news saying, “But I haven’t got any”. This went on for weeks, as if the Government believed that in the end a big number would overpower the lived experience.
But astonishingly the public believed the individuals more than the big numbers.
Secondly, the Government felt for weeks that by saying that they were ‘straining every sinew’ and ‘working night and day’ to procure and distribute tests and PPE the public would give them marks for effort. But effort was not enough. Only weeks into the crisis, over the Easter weekend, the message changed. Now the Government told the public that “this is a difficult distribution problem” and “Do you know that we now have to get PPE to over 50000 locations when in the past it was only 200 or so hospitals?” After weeks of appearing to say that it only needed hard work, they now admitted that it was not easy.
Starting off by saying that this wasn’t easy would have been a good way of treating the population as grownups. If you spend weeks saying it only needs effort, the public will expect you to get it done – especially if the only thing you regularly say is that you are trying very hard.
Thirdly, and most importantly because it goes beyond communications into reality, the Government were in Whitehall issuing policy directives and announcing large numbers, but the problem was distributed among nearly a couple of million health and social care workers who were all over the country. Getting tests and PPE to that many people was a decentralised problem. But for weeks the Government felt that centralised power could solve the problem.
This relates to the problem that I discussed earlier in the week – about the failure to increase testing capacity. If you look at it from inside Whitehall you only see some of the solution – we will expand what we are doing already and that will increase the number of tests or distribute PPE.
But if you look beyond what you can see from Whitehall – and take a decentralised view of the country – there are a very large number of assets available that are not visible to Whitehall.
Since February – in another part of the crisis – the distribution system for the nation’s supermarkets after an initial week of difficulty caused by panic buying, has been delivering hundreds of lines of fresh food to about 10,000 supermarkets every day. For them distribution is an everyday part of their core business. If they get it wrong they go out of business. Whenever any of us visit the centre of the country – for me that’s the area around Northampton – we see enormous warehouses with docking bays for tens of large lorries. These are the warehouses from which distribution is managed.
A supermarket will get a piece of tuna from the Maldives to your plate whilst it is still fresh – wherever that is. It’s normal for them.
So it is for companies such as Nissan. They organise distribution on a global basis. If you deliver a consignment of parts to their factory in Sunderland more than 15 minutes late you will get a demerit on your contract. If it gets there 15 minutes early – you also get a demerit. The start of the crisis saw Nissan run down its production facilities. They have people who run them and organisations who deliver standing idle.
As a small nation we are very good at distribution.
Unlike Nissan the supermarket lorries and warehouses are very busy at the moment. But I am certain that in early February they would have shared their expertise, software and even a few people to set up a system for the Government to help distribute PPE to 50,000 + locations.
But I am not sure the Government saw the problem as being 50,000 then. I suspect it felt the problem was 200+ and that they had it covered with their own expertise and capacity.
This problem with the distribution of PPE and tests reflects a much bigger problem about where the Government thinks power can be used in public services.
It looks like the N in the NHS and the centralised power that comes with it has proved very capable of expanding NHS capacity for ICU beds. This was achieved with great speed and skill with beds and even new hospitals appearing at different stages all over the country.
But when you need a distributed system – such as getting staff to those IKEA car parks that were empty but open for testing – this didn’t work. Let alone distributing the 700 million+ bits of PPE to the 2 million people who needed it. For that you need a distributed approach to power.
For this crisis – and for our post-crisis world – we will need to be very good at both tasks, not just one. That means being capable of doing two very different things at once.