Why does everything have to be ‘world beating’ when just getting the job done would be good enough?

Now every nation is proud of what it does and many want to be seen as being better than others. So I can understand competition between nations in a wide range of different activities. Wanting to be better at sport, arts, soft power – a whole range of important issues. I really loved the Olympics not just because of the medals but because I felt that “we” did a good job in putting them on when the world was watching.

So like most people I can be touched by the drive of national competition.

However when I stand back and think about it I just can’t understand why I would want an English ‘test, track and trace’ system to be “world beating”. I really want it to work – along with most people – as I know that if it works I will live a more normal life.

But “world beating”??  Will there really be a group of people judging the English system against the Australian and Japanese ones and awarding points so that one beats the other? No there won’t be.

It’s quite a different thing to say that you want our system to be ‘good’ or even ‘very good’. Judging it by how well it works, rather than its country of origin.

I can’t help thinking that the wish to label our test, track and trace system as ‘world beating’ is just a bit pathological. This is not an occasion for us to begin flag waving, this is our part of the global effort to save lives.

There are also those on the left who feel the need to say that the NHS is the “best health care system in the world”. I’m not sure what their point is. It’s undoubtedly a good idea to look at how different health care systems work so that we can learn from them. And it’s good to be proud of what the NHS has achieved – but do people really go to bed at night feeling warmer because our NHS is better than the French system?

There is a long history, in many countries including our own, of what historians called ‘exceptionalism’. Because of their history or character some nations feel that they are exceptional. Different nations have different reasons for believing this – a successful fight against colonialism; a peaceful overthrow of a dictator; beautiful architecture or art – many different reasons.

But for some countries, including the English, this exceptionalism can be overclaimed.  A belief develops that feels that because a nation has done a number of important (and sometimes great) things then everything it does has to be exceptional. It is this nationalist line of thought that leads to the notion of a world beating ‘test, track and trace’ system.

But when I talk with friends about this they tell me that I am being naïve. This claim to being ‘world beating’ is not some pathological patriotism but is all about trade. “Follow the money” they say.

It has been suggested to me that one part of the different national battles against Covid is to create a shop window for what each has done. If, for example, you are an island lying off a large continent, I can recognise that you would go and look at what New Zealand have achieved and how they have done it. But how does exporting beating good at being pandemics make you money?

It is also different if you are a nation about to re-launch yourself and your economy under new branding – as Britain is about to. Global Britain is not a nationalist boast (the way in which I was thinking of it) but a trading brand. And if you are rebranding you need to take every opportunity to “sell the brand”.

The 2019 election-winning Conservative Manifesto extensively developed the idea of the brand. Page 40 stated “We will invest in world class computing and health data systems….”. The “world class/world beating” label – around how we as a country are resisting the virus – is part of that wider branding campaign.

So we have to ask “How has the shop window of our developing a world beating app for test track and trace gone”?

I know all IT projects are genuinely difficult. As IT consumers we usually only get to see the wonderful, successful parts of the digital revolution.

As the British test track and trace app was being developed many people contacted me to tell me it looked like it was heading for disaster. Many wondered how on earth the British Government felt it had sufficient expertise to tell Apple and Google that we could develop our app without them.

You might think that however good NHSX felt they were, that Apple and Google had something of a track record of sorting out digital issues. OK it may need some local development, but I am sure Apple and Google would be fine with that. After all their everyday products are fine-tuned nationally.

But no, apparently NHSX could do it without them.

But it wasn’t only the most successful digital companies on earth we could do without, it was also technology developers in the UK.

Professor Tim Spector of Kings College has said that NHSX treated his symptom tracker as if it were the enemy. (I am one of the 3.8 million who use it). “The idea was that the NHSX app was going to be the saviour, another world beating thing. It was going to be an all-singing all-dancing app that does everything; diagnoses you, it tells you about tests for you and those who you have come into contact with

It was precisely because this was going to be ‘another world beating thing’ that no help was needed.

One of the lessons I would hope comes out of this experience is that if it is going to develop something that is world-beating a wise nation would recognise that we need the help of the world to do it.

If I had the Prime Minister’s classical education I would describe all these “world-beating” labels as hubris[1]


[1] Cambridge English Dictionary   A way of talking or behaving that is too proud