Gus O’Donnell blasts ministers for ‘weak strategy and leadership’ in Covid-19 response

Ex-cab sec says placing rhetoric over substance is damaging public trust in government and scientific institutions
Lord Gus O'Donnell. Photo: PA Images

By Jim Dunton

24 Sep 2020

The prime minister and his cabinet's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has dented public trust in government and risked doing the same for the nation’s scientific institutions, according to Lord Gus O’Donnell.

The former cabinet secretary is set to make a detailed and stinging critique of the government's Covid-19 response in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ annual lecture this evening, accusing ministers of “weak strategy and leadership” and falling to focus on the right evidence. 

But he will also praise the “incredible” efforts of front-line staff treating patients, as well as civil servants who have “worked tirelessly on implementing government policies in ways that make a real difference to people’s lives”.

Ahead of tonight’s lecture, O’Donnell said it was reasonable to ask why a country ranked among the world’s most-prepared for a pandemic in last year’s Global Health Security Index had “been so incapable” of combatting Covid-19.

“A litany of new rules and a steady stream of leaks reflects a government struggling to emerge from firefighting mode,” he said. 

“Without a clear strategy, strong leadership and the use of good evidence from a range of human sciences, there is a risk that our efforts to emerge from this pandemic will be protracted and extremely costly".

In his lecture, O’Donnell is set to take aim at the government’s focus on “rhetoric over substance” in the pandemic response, and its talk of “moonshots” and impressive targets for increasing testing levels, such as the 100,000 tests a day target, ultimately met by measuring capacity rather than results.

“This obsession with soundbites leaves institutions scrambling to achieve targets which are usually not where focus is best directed,” O’Donnell is expected to say. 

“The government is then forced to play up the numbers to show how it’s achieved these targets. This is depleting trust in government information. Even worse, these tactics can lead to public distrust in scientific data and the UK’s scientific institutions.”

O’Donnell will also address last month’s scrapping of Public Health England, a step he argues is “difficult to see as anything other than a political attempt to deflect blame” in the middle of a pandemic. 

“Such moves can seriously deplete morale within institutions that are key to the pandemic response,” he will say. 

“More generally, the UK has one of the strongest scientific communities in the world and yet it is as though our institutions have simply not been built for handling this crisis. 

“We need to look seriously at how to reform our institutions so that we are much more capable of responding to challenges like Covid.”

O’Donnell argues that the government should set up a National Covid Council modelled on the National Security Council, which would allow senior ministers and officials to consider – rather than just defer to – the opinions received from SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

The former cabinet secretary is critical of the government’s reliance on advice from Sage, which he argues is dominated by medical scientists who are not best placed to give policy and strategy advice.

“The key to controlling the virus is changing people’s behaviours,” O’Donnell will say. “The government’s incorporation of expertise from behavioural and other human sciences has been woeful. The weak ‘stay alert’ campaign is an example of this. 

“When the government says it ‘follows the science’, this really means that it follows the medical sciences, which has given it a one-sided perspective and led to some questionable policy decisions.”

Although O’Donnell warns that the spectre of a no-deal Brexit at the end of December and a second wave of coronavirus would represent a “perfect storm” for the government, he will argue that there are positive opportunities ahead for the nation.

“The UK can take a leading role in safe and ethical vaccine development, distribution and vaccination programmes,” he will say. 

“To achieve this we need to revive the moribund international networks, like the G20, to deliver global solutions for this global problem. Again, to do so successfully the government must draw on the broad range of human sciences. We need engineers to set up distribution networks and behavioural scientists to encourage vaccine take-up.”

O’Donnell will deliver his lecture at 6pm.

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