Peter Bye

The last piece I posted on BlogActiv was on the 30th March[1], a week or two after the UK had gone into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In just over the two months since then, the death toll in the UK resulting from the virus is, at the time of writing, 41,364[2], although the true number may be higher; there is a degree of uncertainty. In any event, the figures compare unfavourably with many other developed nations, in particular with Germany (8,771 deaths), which has a higher population[3] (about 83,784,000 vs 67,886,000) and therefore a much lower rate of deaths per 100,000. Only the USA has had a higher number of deaths than the UK, although the much higher population means that the death rate is lower.

The reasons for the UK’s relatively poor performance are unsurprisingly the subject of much debate in political and scientific circles in the UK and beyond. I have been prompted to comment based on rereading the 1994 book ‘Great Britain, Little England’, by the late Richard Hill[4]. Some of his observations on the way the English are organised and think are, I believe, of interest in considering the UK’s response to the virus. Is there something about the way we are governed, including the structure of government and the people doing the governing that has led to the poor performance? Has the entire Brexit saga been a damaging distraction to the government and civil service, leaving insufficient time for anything else?

Start with the structure of government. Three of the four countries comprising the UK have varying degrees of devolved power, and are represented by local parliaments[5]; England is the exception. The central government in Westminster has full powers over England and significant powers over the other three countries. The system is thus something of a hybrid: it’s not a federation but nor is it a single central government. The response to the pandemic has been a bit different in the four countries, for example in the conditions and timing for lifting lockdown. Westminster retains many powers, such as requiring a 14-day quarantine for people arriving from outside the UK (arrivals from Ireland are excluded from the quarantine requirement). And Westminster has significant controls over the purse strings. Although there have been some conflicts between Westminster and the other countries, the Economist concludes that things have worked reasonably well[6].

So why has the outcome in the UK been so much worse than in Germany? An article in the weekend Financial Times[7] discusses some of the factors behind Germany’s success. Germany entered the crisis with its healthcare system in excellent condition. It’s well-funded, and maintains consistent standards across the country. Germany’s system is more decentralised than the UK, allowing local decisions. In the UK, funding for the NHS has been poor since the 2008/9 financial crisis. In the event, the NHS has performed well in difficult circumstances, for example in setting up emergency hospitals for Covid-19 cases only.

But perhaps the real difference is in the quality of the two governments’ responses to the crisis. Germany took action more rapidly than the UK and has maintained a consistent approach. (Perhaps it helps that Chancellor Angela Merkel is a physicist and her chief of staff a doctor.) The FT piece quotes one German hospital administrator saying ‘There was a kind of “no bullshit” attitude that dominated all decision-making’. The current Conservative government in the UK is distinctly underwhelming, exhibiting a number of the characteristics noted by Mr Hill back in 1994, such as obsessive secrecy, amateurism and incompetence. Policies are announced with limited explanation, often without consultation with those affected, and insufficient time to implement them. Rather than a ‘no bullshit’ approach, members of the government appear to spend much of their time dodging the hard questions and trying to explain why they are doing a good job. As a result, the level of trust in the government is low. The Dominic Cummings affair has further damaged public confidence, and has upset many Conservative MPs. Mr Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, appeared to break the lockdown rules he himself devised, but would not resign and Mr Johnson would not sack him.

And so we come to B-word: has the Brexit saga been responsible in some way for the current situation? I believe it has. It has consumed far too much energy over the past nearly four years. Warnings of the consequences of future pandemics, and the need to prepare, have gone unheeded[8], although the UK is not alone in that. But a major result of Brexit is the low quality of the current government. Too many of its members are there because of their support for Brexit rather than their competence; the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is a notable, although rare, exception. Good Conservative MPs have been ignored or even expelled from the party because of their anti-Brexit stance. The problem goes to the top: Mr Johnson obsessed about being Prime Minister but, having got the job, appears to have little idea of what to do and has subcontracted much of government policy to Mr Cummings, a disruptive and aggressive figure. What will happen if the UK fails to agree a trade treaty with the EU is a major cause of concern, given the uncertainty about future trade relationships resulting from the Covid-19 crisis.

Notes and sources

[1] See https://peterbye.blogactiv.eu/2020/03/30/is-our-behaviour-going-to-change/

[2] The source is a dashboard at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. See: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html Variations in the ways countries report data can make comparisons difficult. And some countries are probably hiding the true figures. The figures were those shown on 11th June 2020.

[3] Source: Worldometer website at: https://www.worldometers.info/population/countries-in-europe-by-population/

[4] Richard was my brother-in-law. I included a short tribute to him at the end of my 30th March post. Great Britain, Little England can be obtained from Amazon.

[5] The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament (Senedd Cymru) and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

[6] See The Economist, June 6th to 12th. The piece is in the Britain section.

[7] FT Weekend Magazine, June6/7. ‘How Germany Got Corona Virus Right’.

[8] The 2017 report on Exercise Cygnus warned of the consequences of a future pandemic, and contained recommendations to minimise the impact. See https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/07/revealed-the-secret-report-that-gave-ministers-warning-of-care-home-coronavirus-crisis

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