Covid will ‘reset’ attitudes to contingency planning, Chisholm tells MPs

Cabinet Office perm sec says there is “no question” government’s pandemic response could have been better
Alex Chisholm appears before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on 18 May 2021

By Jim Dunton

19 May 2021

Cabinet Office permanent secretary Alex Chisholm has told MPs he believes the inquiries into the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic will “reset the dial” on contingency planning in Whitehall.

Chisholm told a Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee meeting yesterday that work is already “ongoing” to increase resilience across departments and that it is undeniable that the response could have been better. He was speaking ahead of the publication of a National Audit Office report setting out initial lessons to be learned.

The perm sec, who is also civil service chief operating officer, told Tuesday’s session that it would have been unreasonable to expect a pandemic to result in the national lockdowns witnessed last year and this year. But he acknowledged that the UK could have been better prepared.

“I don’t want at all to give the impression that we’re content with all the preparations and the contingency planning,” he said.

“We’ve lived through this, it was the top of the national risk register. But this particular pandemic that we’ve had and our ability to deal with that has shown that we could have done a better job of it, no question, and that our level of contingency-planning resilience will need to rise in future.”

Chisholm told MPs that departments have already learned lessons from the experience of the past 15 months, and said the independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic – which is not due to start until next spring – will not be the only learning exercise.

He said that the March integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy made a commitment to conducting a full review of the national resilience structure – working with devolved administrations, combined authorities, local authorities and other parties.

“That is something which, under the guidance of the new national security adviser, is already under way,” Chisholm said. “So we’ll be drawing lessons from that as well, so we don’t need to wait entirely for the independent review.”

Chisholm said that some “enhancements” to departmental contingency planning have already been made as a result of the experience of recent months. But he told MPs there is a question mark over whether those enhancements will be considered “fully sufficient” by national security adviser Sir Stephen Lovegrove.

Chisholm added that in the longer term, he expects the government’s attitude towards contingency planning to err on the side of higher spending for better resilience.

“I’m sure that one of the things that we will conclude is that we need to have a higher level of resilience right across the system,” he said.

“We need to be more attentive to the need to build up stockpiles, contingency supplies, extra resources, which in normal years you would then be criticised for doing because significant public expenditure would be involved.

“But you’ll have it for the time when you face a massive impact event like this. So I’m sure that there will be a resetting of the dial in terms of how much we prepare for low-probability, high-impact events.”

‘Hard to apply hindsight to Greensill’

MPs also quizzed Chisholm over the ongoing inquiries into failed financial firm Greensill Capital and its links to government – which involved employing former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers while he was still a civil servant and hiring former PM David Cameron as a lobbyist.

The perm sec was asked whether a civil servant would be allowed to take a second job with a commercial organisation in a similar way today.

Chisholm said the changing nature of Greensill’s involvement with the government – which saw it shift from being an adviser on supply chain finance to a supplier – made it difficult to answer the question.

“We now know that Greensill hasn’t worked out at all well. If we try and imagine what it was like back at the time, they probably didn’t foresee that that company would end up in liquidation as it is very sadly at the moment,” he said. “It also wasn’t maybe at that time foreseen that [it] would be doing government work.

“I think it was about two and a half years after that time [when Crothers joined the business] that Greensill won its first public contract, and so it might not have been as obvious in foresight as it is in hindsight.”

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