Civil service ‘must treat vaccine rollout as a military operation’

Former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith accuses officials of being culturally programmed to miss targets
Iain Duncan Smith PA

By Jim Dunton

08 Jan 2021

Sir Iain Duncan Smith has accused the civil service of lacking key operational skills to effectively lead the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in the coming weeks and urged the adoption of military techniques to ensure the nationwide programme is delivered as quickly as possible.

The former work and pensions secretary, who was also Conservative Party leader from 2001-2003, said the target of vaccinating the nation’s 13.4 million most vulnerable people by the middle of February would be challenged by “the normal inertia” between departments.

Writing in Daily Telegraph, Duncan Smith – mastermind of the late-running Universal Credit programme – said vaccine-deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi would need “the most robust” institutional structures and powers.

“This must be treated as a military operation. He must be clear what the real objective is and make it clear that each person must understand this, all the way down the chain,” Duncan Smith said.

“’Maintenance of the objective’, a principle that Mr Zahawi would do well to borrow from the military, cannot be forgotten and an assessment of whether the rollout is on track but must be made daily. 

“To that end, it is good that 101 Logistics Brigade are now embedded in the process. The military bring key command and control skills, an area in which the civil service is typically poor.”

Duncan Smith said the “main problem” with civil servants was that they “don’t by nature tend to meet targets”.

“They typically end up giving ministers overly optimistic objectives and then later reporting back failure once it's already too late,” he said.

“This is because once they set a goal, they often then leave it to those tasked with carrying out individual assignments to report back up. Without critical interrogation along the way, problems get hidden and the targets get missed. 

“Examples of this are endless but the test and trace app would be one recent example.”

Duncan Smith said that because the government would need to vaccinate a minimum of two million people a week to meet its objectives, Zahawi would need detailed daily updates on progress at local level and “urgent” powers of intervention if targets were missed for two days.

“Individual departments must not be allowed to drag their feet or have other priorities,” Duncan Smith said. 

“Perhaps the best example of where this has already occurred is the delay in getting retired doctors and nurses in to carry out the jabs. The NHS has known about the ridiculous amount of compliance these people were being put through, yet dragged their feet on resolving the issue until this week.”

Duncan Smith also suggested that Jobcentres could potentially be used as vaccination centres, along with coffee shops, pubs or even schools – all of which he said had easy access to refrigeration facilitates required to store vaccines.

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