Last Wednesday’s announcement by the Prime Minister that there will be an independent Inquiry into the response to Covid 19 was important. I am sure he envisages it starting very late and reporting even later, but simply having agreed to have it is important. Many senior ministers, civil servants and public managers have all been acting for months as if there will be such an Inquiry. Contemporaneous notes have been taken and phone calls recorded – all to make sure that there is a record to put before the Inquiry.
The fact the government have agreed to have one is significant. The fact that it has no start date will make the PM feel confident that any findings will not cause him any problems and, that if he and they take their time, there will be no repercussions until the after the next election. So saying “yes we will have one – but no not yet (and I am not sure when)” may look to him like a neat strategy.
But unfortunately for him all actions – even simple announcements – have a reaction (good old Newton) And the reaction here is that, since you have announced an Inquiry, it is not really sensible to prematurely draw lessons for the machinery of government from what happened as a result of the Covid crisis before that Inquiry reports.
Having agreed to have an Inquiry, anything that they might claim to be doing ‘as a result of the Covid crisis’ would undermine the Inquiry that you have called.
Yet even at this early stage, the Government are already picking and choosing lessons ‘from the Covid crisis’ to provide explanations their actions.
A few weeks ago the Cabinet Secretary left his job having told a select committee that he hadn’t resigned – but also that he wasn’t sacked. This was the start of a reform of the Civil Service. One of the reasons for this reform, briefed by Number 10, was the poor performance of the Civil Service in confronting the Covid crisis.
Now there are certainly a wide range of different reasons for reforming the Civil Service. As Michael Gove pointed out in his Ditchley lecture, senior civil servants should be less southern, less middle class and have more degrees in science.
(Incidentally the Cabinet Secretary who has just been removed came from Lincolnshire, went to a grammar school and had a degree in economics – so when we get to hear of his successor they will need to come from further north than Lincolnshire, been to a comprehensive school and studied something more scientific than economics).
However, having announced the Inquiry, one reason that the Government can’t use for reforming the Civil Service is that it worked badly during the pandemic. We simply don’t know. That’s the point of setting up the Inquiry. We must await the outcomes before we know how well the Civil Service did.
If the government want to act quickly based on knowledge of how the Civil Service performed during the crisis then they need to set up their Inquiry with alacrity. Only then will they know what to do.
But premature and unthought-through lessons drawn from the Covid crisis before the Inquiry reports does not stop with the Civil Service.
As I posted on Friday, the Government also want to introduce legislation to reorganise the NHS – and especially to provide the Secretary of State with more power over it.
The previous Saturday’s briefing suggested that one of the reasons for this proposed legislation were the lessons drawn from the Covid crisis. One part of the briefing talked about clipping Simon Stevens’s wings.
This begs one or two questions, for instance:
Who has drawn these lessons?
How have they been weighed up?
Is there any evidence for these lessons?
Is ‘clipping Simon Stevens’s wings’ a lesson to be drawn from the evidence to be heard by the Public Inquiry (before it begins)?
Does it appear as one of many recommendations by that Inquiry (that have not yet been made)?
The structure of the NHS and its accountability to Parliament is an important matter. When it sits the Public Inquiry will doubtless hear a lot of evidence about this issue and how it worked during the crisis, and I am sure it will make recommendations on the matter.
The government however want it both ways. A slow Inquiry but very speedy lessons.
So when legislation is introduced in parliament to divert accountability of the NHS to the Secretary of State, I am sure both parliament and the public will be arguing that the government should wait to hear what the Inquiry has to say. That may be a major part of every debate.
To introduce legislation that changes the accountability of the NHS before the Inquiry sits is worse than insulting. The government is setting up an Inquiry and not waiting for it to do its work.
They could deal with this difficulty by setting up the Inquiry tomorrow and getting it going very quickly.
But it doesn’t want to do that. Nor is it prepared to wait for the outcomes.
The Prime Minister famously said he wanted to both have his cake and eat it. It would appear he also wants to have a very speedy outcome from a very slow Inquiry.