Covid Inquiry: Sunak defends pandemic decision-making structures

PM says having Covid Taskforce in place from start of pandemic would have “definitely improved things”
Rishi Sunak at Covid Inquiry. Photo: Covid Inquiry/YouTube

By Tevye Markson

11 Dec 2023

Rishi Sunak has defended the structures the government used for decision making during the onset of the Covid pandemic. 

The prime minister, who was chancellor when the novel virus emerged in 2020, told the Covid Inquiry this morning that the Covid Taskforce and cabinet committee structures, once they were put into place, made the response more effective and efficient.

He said having these structures right from the beginning of the pandemic would have “definitely improved things”, however.

“It's clear that the taskforce structure, and the O and the S structures made things, I think, work more effectively and efficiently,” Sunak said. “And they were not there right at the beginning and it’s good that they were implemented and good that they improved over time.”

Many of the witnesses giving evidence to the inquiry have criticised the decision making structures at the centre of government during the pandemic, arguing that cabinet was sidelined and describing “dysfunction” in the Cabinet Office and No.10.

But Sunak said the Covid-O and Covid-S system – the cabinet committees dealing with operations and strategy respectively – that then-prime minister Boris Johnson set up several weeks into the pandemic “was a structure that made sense and that I found typically effective”.

He said this model, which was based on the government’s Brexit response, “had been used before” and “had been shown to work”.

Former deputy cabinet secretary Helen MacNamara previously told the inquiry that Whitehall processes were “bent out of shape” by Brexit work ahead of pandemic, leading to structures that were “antithetical to  good decision making… especially for something as complicated as how to respond to Covid”.

Sunak said the setting up of the Covid Taskforce in June was also “a necessary and important step in improving the quality of decision-making and the sharing of information”.

He said this model is now “ready to be deployed off the shelf” and that “if this happened again, one would want to make sure that that taskforce model was there from the beginning, day one, day zero, because that definitely improved things”.

Former Covid Taskforce head Simon Ridley told the inquiry earlier this year that the initial model for Covid decision making was ditched after a matter of weeks because it was overly bureaucratic and a source of confusion. He said the taskforce was created to replace it in May 2020 because of overlaps between the responsibilities of four predecessor “ministerial implementation groups” set up in response to the pandemic two months earlier.

A 2022 internal review of crisis capabilities in the centre of the government found the “taskforce approach” has “been useful in rapidly addressing a variety of issues which defy our existing structures” but that “multiple temporary arrangements do not recognise the likely scale of the medium-term challenge”.

The review, which was made public for the first time by the Covid Inquiry last week, also said the model does not “provide a basis for maturing the important new approaches and capabilities required to get ahead of structural problems and mitigate future crises”.

Sunak also told the inquiry that there was “rigorous and proper debate and deliberation” using the Covid Taskforce and Covid-O and Covid-S decision-making structures “after they were set up and even before that”.

He said interactions with No.10 and the Cabinet Office “felt fine” to him and that he didn't feel “shut out” of the decision-making process.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock has claimed that Dominic Cummings, who was Boris Johnson’s top adviser from July 2019 to November 2020, exercised too much influence over the then-PM's decision-making ability, and sought to shut ministers out of the decision-making process.

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