The COVID-19 pandemic was the most critical test of the central state in England since 1939. And it failed.
Sir Winston Churchill, on whom our Prime Minister supposedly models himself, knew a thing or two about managing a crisis and gaining public trust. In World War Two he made local councils the centre of public health and information programmes. And they delivered. Deeply embedded in their local communities, their local populations had no need for lectures on ‘civic values’
When Jens Spahn the German minister for health was recently asked about the success of his country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic he politely replied that the real success lay with the 400 local councils who delivered both the public health policy and the comprehensive test, track and isolate policy.
Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of front line staff our NHS sadly reverted to a ‘National Hospital Service’, emptied the wards and passed on the problem to hard-pressed councils and care homes. This ‘strategy’ has been compounded by a reliance on untried and untested commercial organisations hastily establishing call centres using staff with a few hours training to carry out the sensitive task of asking highly stressed people who have been diagnosed with the potentially deadly coronavirus to work out who they have been recently in contact with (and imagine if that period has involved tube, train or bus travel).
Note too that all mention of using a phone app has disappeared. The public will pretty soon work out that this is not a ‘public service’. None of this bodes well for future government policy on the vital economic recovery plans for our towns and cities.
Dominic Cummings is not a popular figure currently but he is right about one thing. Our national state and its agencies, especially the plethora of remote and unaccountable quangos, are incapable of responding to a crisis. We need a slimmer, more strategic central state and one that relies on local initiative and capacity. Hopefully we can get that right before the autumn and a possible second wave of the pandemic. Lives depend on it.
Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and writes on local politics